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SEVEN LUCKY GODS MENU
Intro Page
 Benzaiten maroon-check
Bishamonten
Daikokuten
Ebisu
Fukurokuju
Hotei
Jurōjin

Related BENZAITEN Pages
Benzaiten's Main Sanctuaries in Japan
Various Kami of Rice, Food, Agriculture
 

 

 

BENZAITEN SPELLINGS

 

 

Jp. = Benten 弁天
Jp. = Benzaiten 弁才天
Jp. = Benzaiten 弁財天
Jp. = Bionten, Mionten 美音天
Jp. = Myō-on Ten 妙音天
Jp. = Daibenzaiten 大弁才天
Jp. = Daiben Kudokuten 大辯功徳天
Skt. = सरस्वती, Sarasvatī
Chn. = Biàncáitiān 辯才天 or 瓣財天
Chn. = Miàoyīn Tiān 妙音天
Translit = 薩羅薩伐底 Sarasabatei
Krn. = Byeonjaecheon 변재천
Krn. = Myoeum Cheon 묘음천

 

 

BENZAITEN MENU


 

 

Summary Upfront
Origin and Evolution
Translation of Name, Spelling Change
Scriptural Basis, Benten Sutras
Main Forms & Functions in Japan
8-Armed Weapon-Wielding Defender
2-Armed Benzaiten & the Mandala
2-Armed Beauty Playing Biwa
Nude 2-Armed Beauty Playing Biwa
Uga Benzaiten (Snake & Shrine Gate)
Tenkawa Benzaiten (3-Headed Snake)
Dakini, Inari, White Foxes, and Benten
Dakini, Tengu, and White Foxes
Kichijōten (Jewel) and Dai Benzaiten
3-Faced Sanmen Daikokuten
3-Faced Deva Riding a Fox
Dakini, Aizen, and White Snakes
15 or 16 Attendants (Dōji / Kumāra)
Wish-Giving Jewel & Nyoirin Kannon
Seven Gods of Good Fortune
Modern Benzaiten Artwork
Dark versus Radiant Benzaiten
Conclusions & Questions
Sources:  Primary  |  Secondary

 HINDU ASSOCIATIONS►
Bishamonten, Daikokuten, Dakiniten,
Kankiten, Kariteimo, Katen, Kichijōten

 KAMI ASSOCIATIONS►
Amaterasu, Azaihime, Ebumi, Inari,
 Ichikishima-hime, Itsukushima Myōjin,
Koyane-hime, Munakata Sanjoshin,
Suijin, Tengu, Ugajin, Others

 ANIMAL ASSOCIATIONS►
Dragons, White Snakes, Turtles
 White Foxes, Peacocks, Swans

 

 

ESOTERIC SEED & MANTRA

 

 

  Benzaiten's Sanskrit Seeds in Japan = SA or SO
Esoteric Seeds <Tobifudo 1  |  2>
Pronounced SA or SO in Japan

ESOTERIC MANTRA
#1 おん さらさばていえい そわか
#1 On Sarasabatei-ei Sowaka
#2 おん そらそばていえい そわか
#2 On Sorasobatei-ei Sowaka

 

 

ENNICHI 縁日 (HOLY DAY)

 

 

Benzaiten's messenger is a snake, and her holy day (when the prayers of the faithful are most likely to be answered) is a "Snake Day," i.e., Mi no hi  巳の日, or Tsuchi no tomi  己巳の日. It occurs once every 60 days in odd-numbered months, and is a bad day for getting married. For reasons unknown (to me), Benzaiten is also especially venerated on days, months, and years of the boar 亥の日. Also, the first day of the snake on the third day of the third month in the old lunar calendar was a day for ritual purification known in Japanese as JOSHI NO SEKKU 上巳の節句 (which is still an alternate name for the popular Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival).
References: The Hina Doll Festival (Hina Matsuri) is traditionally held on March 3 every year. The first DAY OF THE SNAKE on the third day of the 3rd month was a day for ritual purification known in Japanese as JOSHI NO SEKKU (which is still an alternate name for the Hina Doll festival in Japan). The dolls and beautiful figurines used in the Hina Matsuri were originally used as SCAPEGOATS for taking on the impurities and bad energies of humans.

J-Sources
J-Site 1
J-Site 2
J-Site 3

 

 

ONE OF 7 LUCKY GODS

 

 

Benzaiten is the sole female among the Seven Lucky Gods of Japan. Since she is a river goddess, her temples and shrines are almost invariably in the neighborhood of water -- the sea, a river, or a lake. As a water goddess, she became the patroness of everything that "flows" -- e.g.,  music, the fine arts (dancing, acting, visual), poetry, and other crafts. Such artistic learning and wisdom often bring prosperity, hence her inclusion in the Japanese group of seven lucky gods. Another factor propelling her popularity goes back to the Muromachi period (1392-1568), when the spelling of her name (Benzaiten 弁才天) was changed, with the character 才 (zai), meaning talent, replaced with its homonym 財 (zai), meaning wealth.

 

 

DRAGON / SNAKE AS AVATAR

 

 

Benzaiten atop Dragon. Painting by Shimomura Kanzan.
Beniten playing biwa atop dragon. (snakes & dragons are her avatars). Circa 1910. By Shimomura Kanzan 下村観山 (1873-1930). Mizuno Museum of Art 水野美術館 (Nagano). Source.

 

 

 

60 pages, 260 photos. Very Heavy . Allow one /  two minutes to load.
LINKS. Maroon = inside this page; = other site page;snap-icon-yellow = external site

Benzaiten
BENZAITEN, BENTEN
River Goddess, Water Goddess
Bestower of Language and Letters
Goddess of Wealth and Good Fortune
Patroness of Music, Poetry, Learning and Art
Defender of Nation, Protector of Buddhist Law


Origin = Hindu River Goddess Sarasvatī サラスヴァティー

Every major city in Japan has a shrine or temple dedicated to
Benzaiten. Her places of worship number in the thousands and
are often located near water, the sea, a lake, a pond, or a river.
She is one of the nation's most widely venerated deities.

Benzaiten playing biwa, the most common form of the deity in Japan. Line Drawing, 1783, Butsuzo-zu-i
Benzaiten playing a biwa 琵琶 (Chn = pípá, Skt = tuṇava)
Standard form as one Japan's Seven Lucky Gods.
Black and white drawing from the 1783 Butsuzo-zui


ASSOCIATIONS
One of Japan's Seven Lucky Gods
Associated Virtue = Amiability
SEVEN VIRTUES:

Japan's Seven Lucky Gods are a popular grouping of deities that appeared from the 15th century onward. The members of the grouping changed over time, but a standardized set didn't appear until the 17th century. According to some Western scholars, Japanese monk Tenkai (who died in 1643 and was posthumously named Jigen Daishi) symbolized each of the seven with an essential virtue for the Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu (1623-1650 AD). The seven virtues are:
  • Candour (Ebisu)
  • Fortune (Daikokuten)
  • Amiability (Benzaiten)
  • Magnanimity (Hotei)
  • Popularity (Fukurokuju)
  • Longevity (Juroujin)
  • Dignity (Bishamonten)

    Source: Flammarion Iconographic Guide - Buddhism

Member of the Tenbu (Sanskrit = Deva)
One of 28 Legions Protecting the 1000-Armed Kannon
One of 20 Celestials appearing in Japanese Mandala
Elder sister of Enma-ten (lord of the underworld)
Consort, wife, or female personification of Bonten and/or Monju
Animal Avatars = Dragons, Snakes, Turtles, Foxes
Companion = Ugajin (human-headed snake-bodied kami)
Linked closely to Hindu-Deva and Shintō-Kami mythologies

 

SUMMARY UPFRONT. The water goddess Benzaiten (Benten for short) is one of Japan's most complex syncretic deities, having long ago been conflated and associated with other divinities from the Hindu, Buddhist, and Japanese pantheons. Her worship in Japan is widespread in esoteric Buddhist camps, Shintō circles, and Shugendō enclaves. Her many forms range from a two-armed beauty playing music to an eight-armed martial deity holding weapons to a monstrous three-headed snake to a divine representation of Amaterasu (the supreme Shintō sun goddess). Dragons and serpents are her messengers and avatars. Like Benzaiten, each creature is closely associated with water and the sacred wish-granting jewel. Today Benzaiten is one of Japan's most popular deities. She continues to serve as the preeminent muse of Japanese artists, an unrivaled agricultural deity invoked for ample rain and bountiful harvests, and the sole female among Japan's wealth-bringing Seven Gods of Good Fortune. Originally a Hindu river goddess named Sarasvatī, she was introduced to Japan (via China) in the mid-7th century CE as a multi-armed defender of Buddhism and the state. But in later times, she was "reconnected" with water and appropriated by Japan's indigenous island cults and kami cults to become, essentially, a native "Shintōized" deity of wealth and good fortune. Until only recently, scholars of Japanese religions have generally ignored this phenomenon and instead focused on the "Buddhazation" of Japan's myriad kami. In many ways, Benzaiten also exemplifies a unique form of "Japanese Hinduism," making it more fruitful to explore her within a Deva-Buddha-Kami (Hindu-Buddhist-Shintō) matrix rather than within a binary Buddha-Kami (Honji Suijaku 本地垂迹) model. See Honji Suijaku popup note.
Honji Suijaku or Honji Suijaku Setsu :
Theory of original reality and manifested traces. A theory of Buddhist-Shinto syncretism. Originally a Buddhist term used to explain the Buddha's nature as a metaphysical being (honji) and the Historical Buddha (i.e. Sakyamuni) as a trace manifestation (suijaku). This theory was used in Japan to explain the relationship between the various Buddhist deities vis-a-vis the Shinto kami; the many Buddha were regarded as the honji (original manifestation), and the Shinto kami as their incarnations or suijaku (traces). Theoretically, honji and suijaku are an indivisible unity and there is no question of valuing one more highly than the other; but in the early Nara period, the honji were regarded as more important than the suijaku. Gradually they both came to be regarded as one; but in the Kamakura period, Shintoists also proposed the opposite theory, that the Shinto kami were the honji and the Buddha were the suijaku. This latter theory is called han-honji-suijaku setsu or shinpon-butsuju setsu.
This illustrated guide traces the evolution of Benzaiten iconography in Japanese artwork and explores her role as a beacon of Japan's combinatory Deva-Buddha-Kami religious matrix. To a lesser degree, this article also examines the ritualistic context of her worship – how her art was employed in religious rites, state functions, Shintō ceremonies, and folk practices. A special side page presents presents mini case studies of Benzaiten's main sanctuaries in both old and modern Japan. The Benzaiten page is presented in approximate chronological order and can be read as a whole or sectionally. To improve readability, information is sometimes repeated. It aims to augment the efforts of students, teachers, art historians, and scholars of Benzaiten lore and art by exploring iconographic dictionaries, sculptures, mandalas, paintings, talismans, and other religious art, both old and new. It draws from pre-modern and modern texts by monks, scholars, and art historians in Japan, Asian, Europe, and America. This handbook does not cover Benzaiten's earlier evolution in India or China in great detail. For more on that topic, click here (popup note).
References: Works by Catherine Ludvik, the preeminent scholar of Benzaiten lore and artwork in India, China, and Japan.

From Sarasvati to Benzaiten (India, China, Japan). Ph.D. dissertation. University of Toronto, January 2001. South and East Asian Religions. Winner of the Governor General's Gold Medal 2001.

Also see Sarasvati Riverine Goddess of Knowledge: From the Manuscript-Carrying Vina-player to the Weapon-Wielding. 2007. 374 pages. Drawing on Sanskrit and Chinese textual sources, as well as Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist art historical representations, this book traces the conceptual and iconographic development of the goddess of knowledge Sarasvati from some time after 1750 B.C.E. to the seventh century C.E. Through the study of Chinese translations of no longer extant Sanskrit versions of the Buddhist 'Sutra of Golden Light' the author sheds light on Sarasvati's interactions with other Indian goddess cults and their impact on one another.

Also see La Benzaiten a huit bras: Durga deesse guerriere sous l'apparence de Sarasvati, Cahiers d'Extreme-Asie, no. 11 (1999-2000), pp. 292-338.

Also see Metamorphoses of a Goddess. Kyoto Journal KJ #62, 2006

Also see the 15th Asian Studies Conference Japan (ASCJ), International Christian University (ICU), 25 June 2011. Presentation entitled Benzaiten and Ugajin: The Skillful Combining of Deities. (Session 16: Room 253).

Also see Uga-Benzaiten: The Goddess and the Snake, pp. 95-110. Impressions, The Journal of the Japanese Art Society of America, Number 33, 2012.

Also see The Origin of the Conception of Sarasvati as Goddess of Knowledge, pp. 507-510, from the Journal of Indian and Buddhist Studies, Volume 47, No. 1 (1998)."

ORIGIN & EVOLUTION. The Sanskrit term Sarasvatī refers to both a goddess and an ancient sacred river
The Sarasvati river of Vedic times in ancient India is often identified as the modern-day Ghaggar-Hakra river. Today this river flows only during monsoon season and originates in northwest India in the state of Himachal Pradesh.
in India's Vedic mythology. As the personification of this sacred river and of water in general, Sarasvatī came to represent everything that flows (e.g., music, poetry, writing, learning, eloquence, wisdom, performing arts). In the Rig Veda (a monumental Hindu text composed centuries before Buddhism's emergence in India in the 5th century BCE), she is described as the best of goddesses, the "inciter of all pleasant songs, inspirer of all gracious thought." <see Rig Veda, Hymn III> In India, she was invoked in Vedic rites as the deity of music and poetry well before her introduction to China around the 4th century CE.

 Jump to 8-armed Happi Benzaiten Section Jump to Biwa-Playing Benzaiten Section  
L = 8-armed Form. Details Here►
R = Mandala Form. Details Here►

She eventually entered Japan sometime in the 7th-8th century, where she was adopted into Japan's Buddhist pantheon as an eight-armed weapon-wielding defender of the nation owing to her martial description in the Sutra of Golden Light. The oldest extant Japanese statue of Benzaiten is an eight-armed clay version dated to 754 CE (photos below). However, the formal introduction of Mikkyō 密教 (Esoteric Buddhism) to Japan in the early 9th century stressed instead her role as a goddess of music and portrayed her in the esoteric Taizōkai Mandala as a two-armed beauty playing a lute.

Prior to the 12th century, Benzaiten's Hindu origins as a water goddess were largely ignored in Japan. But sometime during the 11th-12th centuries, the goddess was conflated with Ugajin (the snake-bodied, human-headed Japanese kami of water, agriculture, and good fortune). Once this occurred -- once Benzaiten was "reconnected" with water -- the level of her popularity changed from a trickle into a flood. By the 12th-13th centuries, she became the object of independent worship and esoteric Buddhist rites (see popup note).
POPUP NOTE (PN):

Among Benzaiten's many forms and roles, she was invoked in rites for battlefield success, artistic success, rain, bountiful harvests, protection against natural disasters, and good fortune. Scholar Brian D. Ruppert says she was the object of esoteric Buddhist rites by at least the 12th century .

Ruppert, Brian D. Jewel in the Ashes: Buddha Relics and Power in Early Medieval Japan. Harvard University Asia Center (July 1, 2000). ISBN-10: 0674002458. Focused on relic worship in medieval Japan. Copious reference notes, this work is aimed at scholars. It includes a very useful glossary of terms. Highly recommended. Unfortunately, Ruppert says Benzaiten was the object of esoteric rites by at least the 12th century, but he fails to give any examples.

We might add here that the AZUMA KAGAMI, an official record of events between 1180 and 1266, says Minamoto Yoritomo visited Enoshima in 1182, where monk Monkaku conducted tantric rites dedicated to Benzaiten for Yoritomo's success.

Also see Discourse and Ideology in Medieval Japanese Buddhism, page 103, edited by Richard K. Payne and Taigen Dan Leighton, Routledge (London & New York), which mentions two Koushiki (Buddhist ceremonial liturgies) written for Benzaiten by monk Joukei (1155?1213; aka Gedatsu Shounin).
Over time her warrior image (favored by samurai praying for battlefield success) was eclipsed by her heavenly mandala representation -- even today, the two-armed biwa-playing form is the most widespread
iconic depiction of Benzaiten and her standard form as one of Japan's Seven Lucky Gods. Once reconnected with water, she rose to great popularity as the patroness of "all things that flow" -- music, art, literature, poetry, discourse, performing arts -- and was also called upon to end droughts or deluges and thereby ensure bountiful harvests. Her sanctuaries are nearly always in the neighborhood of water -- the sea, a river, a lake, or a pond -- while her messengers and avatars are serpents and dragons. In fact, the creatures who rule the waters are all intimately associated with Benzaiten in Japan. In the Kamakura period (1185-1333) she was sculpted in the nude, but such statues are rare and dressed in robes when used in ceremonies. In the Muromachi period (1392-1573), the spelling of her name was changed, with the character zai 才 (meaning talent) replaced with its homonym zai 財 (meaning wealth) and she subsequently became one of Japan's Seven Lucky Gods. With the addition of wealth and fortune to Benzaiten's earlier roles, her popularity skyrocketed and she eventually supplanted Kichijōten (Skt. = Lakṣmī), the traditional Buddhist goddess of wealth and beauty. The two, even today, are confused and conflated.

 Jump to Uga Benzaiten Section Jump to Uga Benzaiten Section  
Uga Benzaiten & Ugajin.
Details here►


In Shintō, Shugendō, and Esoteric Buddhism, Benzaiten was associated early on (circa 11th-12th centuries) with an obscure local snake kami known as Ugajin (who has the body of a snake and the face of an old man). A kami of water, foodstuffs, and good fortune, Ugajin was likely derived from other food-related deities in Japanese creation myths, especially one named Uga no Mitama, the kami of grains and foodstuffs, said to embody the spirit of rice, and commonly considered an aspect of Inari (Japan's extremely popular kami of the rice paddy, grain, cultivation, and prosperity). Benzaiten's linkage with Ugajin is one of the key wellsprings of Benzaiten's longstanding popularity in Japan. In artwork, a still-popular form of Benzaiten known as Uga Benzaiten is commonly crowned with an effigy of Ugajin. A shrine gate (torii 鳥居) typically adorns Benzaiten's headdress as well, symbolizing Ugajin's identify as a Japanese kami (or perhaps symbolizing Inari). Both Ugajin and the gate are purely Japanese conventions, linking Benzaiten to the Shintō camp, to Ugajin, and perhaps to Inari -- thus highlighting Benzaiten's role as an agricultural deity providing ample rain, protecting the harvest, and bringing prosperity to the people.

 Jump to Dakiniten Section.   
Dakini atop white fox. Details here►

Jump to 3-Headed-Snake Tenkawa Benzaiten Mandala Jump to Uga Benzaiten Mandala
L=Tenkawa Benzaiten. Details Here►
R=Uga Benten Mandala. Details Here►


Jump to Sanmen Daikokuten Section. Jump to Sanmen Dakiniten Section.
L = Sanmen Daikokuten. Details here►
R = Sanmen Dakiniten. Details here►

In the 12th & 13th centuries, Benzaiten was additionally fused with Dakiniten, a demonic flesh-eating, blood-drinking Hindu deity who ultimately converted to Buddhism. The divine Dakiniten (as opposed to the demonic) appears in Japanese art riding a white fox and holding a sword and wish-granting jewel. If the fox were removed, she would look exactly like Daibenzaiten (another iconic two-armed form of Benzaiten shown holding sword and jewel). The fox, in fact, is often the only clue to differentiate the two. Dakiniten is also closely linked to fox-related Inari (Japan's kami of rice) and snake-related Daikokuten (Japan's Buddhist god of agriculture). Sometime later, both Benzaiten and Dakiniten were appropriated by Japan's Shugendō sects of mountain asceticism and re-configured in their fantastically syncretic Tenkawa Mandala, wherein Benzaiten appears as a monstrous 3-headed snake with human body and 10 arms, surrounded by Dakiniten, Inari, 15 disciples, other deities, white foxes, white snakes, and wish-granting jewels. This form was used to invoke her aid for bountiful harvests and good fortune, but neither this form nor the earlier Dakini form gained widespread geographical reach.

Around the late 14th century, Benzaiten began appearing in another esoteric configuration involving Bishamonten (defender of the nation, guardian of treasure) and the aforementioned agricultural deity Daikokuten. In statuary and painting, the trio are combined into a single (and still popular) three-headed deity known as Sanmen Daikokuten. All three were introduced to Japan early on as defenders of the state. All three are worshipped independently in Japan, all three are members of the
Seven Lucky Gods, and all three share overlapping associations. Around the same time, another three-headed esoteric version of Benzaiten emerged. Called Sanmen Dakiniten (or sometimes Three Deva), it includes Benzaiten, Dakiniten, and the elephant-headed Kankiten. What prompted such syncretism? Unknown, but in the 14th and 15th centuries, the esoteric Buddhist sects (Shingon and Tendai) plus the orthodox Six Schools of Nara competed fiercely for followers, not only among themselves, but against the newly formed and thriving schools of the 13th-century Kamakura reformation (Pure Land, Zen, and Nichiren). These latter faith systems stressed pure and simple belief over complicated rites and doctrines and deplored the elitism of the court and entrenched monasteries. Amidst this volatile scene, Japan's traditional sects likely employed popular gods in new formats to attract and maintain followers. The Seven Lucky Gods, for example, appeared around the 15th century.

Jump to Wish-Granting Jewel Section
L = Wish-Granting Jewels. Details►
R = Nyoirin Kannon. Details here►

In Benzaiten's convoluted evolutionary map in Japan, one of the most pivotal links in her association with dragons, snakes, and foxes is the wish-granting jewel (Skt. = cintāmaṇi). These creatures are Benzaiten's main avatars in Japan, and like the goddess herself,  they are closely associated with the jewel and commonly depicted carrying it. The jewel likewise serves as a pivot linking Benzaiten to several other important female deities of wealth, including Kichijōten, Dakiniten, Nyoirin Kannon, Inari (female form), and Amaterasu. In Shingon circles, Nyoirin is considered a Buddhist manifestation of Dakini and Inari, who in turn is a transformation body of the supreme Shintō sun goddess Amaterasu. In the complex web of associations that developed from the 11th century onward, various links were forged between Nyoirin, Amaterasu, Benzaiten, and other deities that grouped them into "continually expanding" families and reinvented their attributes and forms. Details here.


 

Click to Enlarge
Seven Lucky Gods as appearing in the 1783 Butsuzozui. CLICK TO ENLARGE.
Seven Lucky Gods. Details here►
As appearing in the 1783 Zōho Shoshū Butsuzō-zui 増補諸宗仏像図彙.
Fukurokuju replaced by
Kichijōten.

 

 

Benzaiten's popularity skyrocketed in the Edo period (1603-1868), when she gained a large following among the merchant and urban classes, among the geisha and artisans, even among gamblers, in her old role as the water goddess and artistic muse and her new role as one of the wealth-bringing Seven Lucky Gods. Her conflation with numerous well-known kami (e.g., Itsukushima-hime, three Munakata water goddesses) was another wellspring of her popularity. When the government forcibly separated Shintō and Buddhism in the latter half of the 19th century, those who joined the Shintō camp stressed these identifications, allowing them to continue worshiping the quasi-Buddhist Benzaiten in her Shintō manifestations. Even so, many Benzaiten sanctuaries and icons were dismantled and replaced with Shintō-only kami counterparts. In the post WWII era, however, Benzaiten has staged a comeback at many of her former sanctuaries. See Sanctuaries sidepage.
Today her cult remains strong. Temples and shrines devoted to her are still found everywhere throughout Japan, where she is worshipped by musicians, painters, sculptors, writers, jealous women (see popup note)
POPUP NOTE (PN):

Some, like author Chiba Reiko , say Uga Benzaiten is a jealous deity, that her jealousy is indicated by the white sakes coiled around her. Chiba also says court musicians who played the biwa in Japan's medieval period remained single, for if they married, they feared they would incur the wrath of Benzaiten, who would take away their musical ability. Today, says Chiba, married couples who pray to Uga Benzaiten for a beautiful daughter are told to worship separately, never as a couple -- supposedly, if they worship Benzaiten at the same time, they will become separated. In Japanese folk traditions even today, Benzaiten is said to be a jealous deity, one identified with many curious practices and taboos that, if not followed, will lead to the breaking up of loving couples or happily married people.
, and others. Her sanctuaries are mostly Shintō shrines (not Buddhist temples). In many ways, Benzaiten epitomizes the combinatory Kami-Buddha matrix that defined most of Japan's religious history. This blending is known as Shinbutsu Shūgō 神仏習合 (lit. = Kami-Buddha syncretism) or Honji Suijaku
Honjisuijaku or Honji-suijaku Setsu :
Theory of original reality and manifested traces. A theory of Buddhist-Shinto syncretism. Originally a Buddhist term used to explain the Buddha's nature as a metaphysical being (honji) and the Historical Buddha (i.e. Sakyamuni) as a trace manifestation (suijaku). This theory was used in Japan to explain the relationship between the various Buddha and Shinto kami; the many Buddha were regarded as the honji, and the Shinto kami as their incarnations or suijaku. Theoretically, honji and suijaku are an indivisible unity and there is no question of valuing one more highly than the other; but in the early Nara period, the honji were regarded as more important than the suijaku. Gradually they both came to be regarded as one; but in the Kamakura period, Shintoists also proposed the opposite theory, that the Shinto kami were the honji and the Buddha were the suijaku. This latter theory is called han-honji-suijaku setsu or shinpon-butsuju setsu.
本地垂迹 (Buddhist deities as honji 本地 or original manifestation and local Shintō kami as suijaku 垂迹 or incarnation / trace). But more accurately, Benzaiten should be considered part of a Deva-Buddha-Kami (Hindu-Buddhist-Shintō) matrix. In terms of popular appeal and common knowledge, Kannon Bosatsu (Buddhist Goddess of Mercy) still perhaps eclipses Benzaiten in the mind of contemporary Buddhist devotees. But the distance is minimal, for Benzaiten, unlike Kannon, is closer to the local Shintō-kami camp, where her worship is widespread. As a hybrid deity, Benzaiten demands our attention as a beacon of Japan's syncretic religious traditions in both the past and present. Today she is the predominant muse of Japanese art, one who inspires musicians, writers, poets, and artists in all professions. From a modern perspective, the realms of imagination and Jungian unconscious are often compared to deep uncharted waters from which spring life-renewing creative forces and artistic inspiration. Benzaiten's traditional links with flowing water and artistic endeavor are therefore most appropriate from a modern psychological standpoint.

 

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Translation One - Goddess of Eloquent Discourse
Spelling of Her Name Later Changed from to


 

Benzaiten playing biwa. Edo-period painting, Honenji Temple, Kagawa Pref.
Benzaiten & biwa. Edo-era painting.
Busshōzan Raigo-in 仏生山来迎院,
Hōnenji 法然寺, Takamatsu, Kagawa
Photo this J-site / Temple's J-site

OLD SPELLING =  辯才天 or 弁才天
NEW SPELLING = 辯財天 or 弁財天
才 = talent, skill, 財 = wealth, riches

 

 

Sarasvatī was introduced to China (via India) around the 4th century CE, where her name was transliterated as 薩羅薩伐底 (Jp = Sarasabatei) and translated as 辯才天 or 弁才天 (Chn. = Biàncáitiān, Jp. = Benzaiten), meaning "excellent orator." These three characters accurately reflect her role as the Goddess of Eloquent Discourse and Speech, as set forth in the Sutra of Golden Light (one of three scriptures of great influence in old Japan).    

        BEN 辯 or 弁 = Discourse, Discuss, Argue
        ZAI 才 = Talent, Eloquence, Skill
        TEN 天 = Celestial Being; Sanskrit = Deva

By the early 14th century, however, the spelling of her name was modified, with the character 才 (zai), meaning talent, replaced with its homonym 財 (zai), meaning wealth. Thereafter in Japan, Benzaiten served not only as the patroness of learning and artistic talent but also as the goddess of wealth and good fortune, becoming a standard member of Japan's Seven Lucky Gods sometime between the 15th and 17th centuries. This change in spelling also led to the decline in the popularity of Kichijōten (Skt. = Laksmi), the traditional Buddhist goddess of wealth, beauty, and merit. Kichijōten had her own cult at the time, but eventually she was supplanted by Benzaiten. The two share similar imagery, attributes, and functions, and even today they are often confused. See Benzaiten and Kichijōten Confusion below. The most plausible reason for the name change involves Ugajin, the snake-bodied human-headed Japanese kami of water, foodstuffs, good fortune, and wealth. In the 11th-12th century CE, Benzaiten and Ugajin were merged into the composite deity Uga Benzaiten. This linkage heralded Benzaiten's "reconnection" with water, spearheaded her association with the food crop and wealth, and propelled Benzaiten's subsequent climb in popularity. Since Ugajin is a water kami of good fortune and wealth, the 才 (zai) of Benzaiten 弁才天 was replaced with its homonym 財 (zai), meaning wealth. This spelling change likely derived from the early 14th-century Japanese text Keiran Shūyōshū 渓嵐拾葉集, a multi-volume document compiled around 1318 AD that contains many of the oral legends of the Tendai esoteric stronghold at Mt. Hiei. One section is entitled Benzaiten Hō Hiketsu 辨天法秘決, wherein the deity is said to manifest in two forms: (1) as Myō-on Benzaiten 妙音弁天 (Wondrous Sound Benzaiten), who embodies knowledge and learning 智恵, and (2) as the combinatory deity Uga Benzaiten 宇賀弁天, who exemplifies good fortune and prosperity 福徳 and appears with the fortune-bestowing snake kami Ugajin atop her head.

 

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Translation Two - Goddess of Wondrous Sound, Myō-on-ten 妙音天


 

Myo-on Benzaiten, as appearing in the 1690 Butsuzo-zui
Myō-on Benzaiten 妙音天辯才天
Photo: Butsuzō-zui, 1690
The text next to her face says
Honji Shaka 本地釋迦, meaning she
is a manifestation of Shaka Nyorai.

 

Benzaiten is also known as the Goddess of Music. In this form she is called Myō-on-ten 妙音天 (Heavenly Sound Deva), or Bionten / Mionten 美音天 (Beautiful Sound Deva). The famous nude effigy of Benzaiten at Enoshima (near Kamakura) is, for example, known as Myō-on-ten. Her name stems from various sources.

1. The 24th chapter of the popular Lotus Sutra 法華経 (Hokekyō), first translated into Chinese by Kumārajīva (Jp. = Kumarajū 鳩摩羅什, 350 - 410 CE), is entitled Myō-on-bon 妙音品, in which Myō-on Bosatsu 妙音菩薩 (Wondrous Sound Bodhisattva) is described. Benzaiten, as Japan's goddess of music, is equated with Myō-on Bosatsu. We may also note that the Lotus Sutra became very popular among the women of the Japanese court during the Heian era (794-1185), for this sutra includes a passage promising the salvation of women. In the sutra's 12th chapter, the daughter of the dragon king Sagara attains enlightenment at the young age of eight, illustrating the universal possibility of Buddhahood for both men and women. Benzaiten's main avatar, if we recall, is the dragon.   

2. The practice of sutra texts performed by mōsō 妄想 (blind muscians) and the practice of chanting with biwa 琵琶 music reportedly started by the end of the 8th century CE. Says The Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music by Alison Tokita & David W. Hughes: "The ritual performance of biwa in association with the cult of Myō-on Bosatsu, and the corresponding Japanese patron of music, Benzaiten (who plays the biwa), was introduced by musicians of court society who had studied in Tang China, for the principal mōsō temple of the Kyoto region, said to have been established in 808, was named Myō-on-dera Jōraku-in 妙音寺 ・常楽寺." <end quote> The epic Heike Monogatari 平家物語 (circa 14th century), which includes passages related to Benzaiten, was originally passed down orally by numerous biwa-playing storytellers known as Biwa Hōshi: 琵琶法師 (lit. "lute monks"). See Primary Resources for English translations of relevant sections.

3. The famous musician Fujiwara no Moronaga 藤原師長 (1138-1192) was known as Lord Myōon'in 妙音院 in his day. He was one of the greatest musicians of his age, one who had received instruction in almost all instruments and vocal traditions of that era. Says Ashgate Research Companion: "His scores for the lute (biwa) and zither (koto) -- known as Sango Yōroku 三五要録 and Jinchi Yōroku 仁智要録 -- are the most extensive and important collections of notation for these instruments." <end quote>

 

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Scriptural Basis - Golden Light Sutra and the Three Benten Sutra
Golden Light Sutra: Skt. = Suvarṇa-prabhāsottama Sūtra; Chn = Jīnguāngmíng zuìshèng wáng jīng


 

WHAT'S HERE
Sutra of Golden Light
Three Benzaiten Sutra
Five Benzaiten Sutra


12th century copy of the Myo-on-hon at Miyama Jinja in Hiroshima

12th-century copy of the Myō-on-bon 妙音品, the 24th chapter of the extremely popular Lotus Sutra, a treasure of Miyama Jinja 厳島神社 in Hiroshima. It describes Myō-on Bosatsu, the Wondrous Sound Bosatsu. Benzaiten, the Japanese goddess of music, is commonly equated with Myō-on Bosatsu.

SUTRA OF GOLDEN LIGHT. Benzaiten is a deva (Jp. = TEN 天), a Sanskrit term for celestial being. She is not a Buddha or Bodhisattva. She is one who has yet to achieve enlightenment, but one who nonetheless possesses miraculous powers to instruct and defend the Buddhist teachings. Benzaiten is mentioned in numerous Mahayana sutra (religious texts), especially the Konkōmyōkyō 金光明経 (Sutra of Golden Light), which has a brief section devoted to her and describes her as a two-armed goddess of eloquence. This text was translated into Chinese in the early 5th century, with other translations in later centuries as well. But it was the early 8th-century Chinese translation by Yijing 義浄 (635-713) -- his version is known as the Konkōmyō saishō ō kyō 金光明最勝王経 (Victorious Kings of the Golden Light Sutra) -- that played the most important role in Japan. The sutra is regarded primarily as a scripture for safeguarding the nation. Yijing's more-developed version was the first to describe Benzaiten as an eight-armed weapon-bearing goddess. Because the sutra promises protection of the state, Benzaiten was initially considered a warrior deity protecting the Japanese nation, but in this text, Benzaiten also promises to protect those who possess it and worship it, and help them "increase their eloquence, beautify their way of explaining, and enhance their wisdom." <Source: Yijing, T. 665 vol. 16, 434b25-438c23> The Golden Light Sutra also describes Benzaiten as the elder sister of Enma-ten 閻魔天 (Skt. = Yama; lord of the underworld), although in other texts she is described as the consort, wife, or female personification (Skt. = Śakti) of Bonten 梵天 (Skt. = Brahmā) or Monju Bosatsu 文殊 (Skt. = Mañjuśrī). <see popup note for details
POP UP NOTE. Benzaiten as Consort of Bonten (Skt. = Brahma) or Monju Bosatsu (Skt. = Manjusri). Although I have not found "scriptural" sources to verify Benzaiten's role as the consort of Bonten or Monju, both of these contentions appear appropriate.
  • Bonten is the Japanese name for Brahma (the creator), one of the three main deities of Hinduism. In ancient Vedic myths, Brahma is born from the cosmic ocean. In the Vedic cycle of creation, destruction, and preservation (rebirth), Brahma is reborn after each cycle from the navel of Visnu (the preserver). Vishnu, if we recall, is seated atop a serpent in the cosmic ocean. Here we find the themes of water and snake -- both closely linked to Benzaiten, and therefore most appropriate. Furthermore, Suiten (the Hindu-Buddhist water deity) is closely associated with Benzaiten. Suiten is one of the 12 Deva, as is Bonten.

  • More on Brahma. Says Richard Thornhill, PhD: "In Japanese myth and folklore the dragon is associated with rivers and the sea, and in Taoist thought it represents the forces of nature. It is thus possible to understand Benten as the immanent aspect of divinity in nature. Then, if one understands Brahma to be the transcendent aspect of divinity, the perception of Sarasvati as immanent accords well with Her being His shakti. This makes it possible to see the East Asian nature-oriented religions of Shinto and Taoism as Goddess-oriented forms of devotional Hinduism." End quote from Thornhill's article Sarasvati in Japan, Hinduism Today, Oct./Nov./Dec. 2002.>

  • Monju is the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. Benzaiten is the Deva of Knowledge. Their pairing thus seems appropriate. Monju appears frequently in the Lotus Sutra, where he helps the daughter of the dragon king to achieve enlightment. As we may recall, Benzaiten is closely associated with dragons, so again this pairing seems appropriate.
> For an English translation of an important sutra passage, see this popup note

TRANSLATION FROM:

Chaudhuri, Saroj Kumar. Hindu Gods and Goddesses in Japan. Vedams, 2003, p. 44, ISBN : 81-7936-009-1.

"Oh, the venerated one! If a man explains this sutra, I shall increase his eloquence, beautify his way of explaining, and slowly enhance his wisdom. If there is a word missing in the sutra, or a passage is misinterpreted, I shall take over the monk and bestow on him the capacity of remembering. If a man does good things, if he propagates this sutra in the world extensively and incessantly, and if he persuades others around him to listen to the sutra, he shall acquire remarkable wisdom and unparalleled happiness, ways and means to do things and the capacity to deliver discourses lucidly. He shall master various mundane skills. He shall transcend life and death and never forfeit the merits he accumulates. He shall attain enlightenment."
.  To learn more about Benzaiten's differing portrayals in various translations of the sutra, see Ludvik, Chapter 7.

BENZAITEN SUTRAS. In Japan's medieval period
Era Names & Dates:
Standard dating scheme found in both Japan and the West.
  • Ancient refers to the Asuka and Nara periods (538-794)
  • Classical refers to the Heian period (794-1185)
  • Medieval refers to the Kamakura era (1185-1333), Muromachi era (1336-1573), and Edo era (1600-1867)
  • Modern refers to everything since 1868 (Meiji, Taisho, Showa, & Heisei periods)

    NOTE: Ancient & Classical are sometimes used collectively to refer to everything through the Nara era. The Edo Period is also known as "Early Modern," while Meiji and after are the "Modern" period. The term "Premodern" refers to pre-Meiji.
(circa 13th century), three apocryphal Japanese texts appeared. Collectively known as the Three Sutra of Benten 弁天三部経 (Benten Sanbukyō), they contain omissions and additions, and introduce an 8-armed heavenly maiden (i.e., Benzaiten) depicted with a coiled white-snake kami (Ugajin, with the face of an elderly man) atop her head, and describe her as leading 15 child deities, holding a wish-granting jewel, wheel, bow, spear, sword, club, lock, and arrow. This combinatory deity is Uga Benzaiten, and worship of this composite Hindu-Kami-Buddha divinity is said to bring infinite blessings. Ugajin is the Japanese kami of water, food, good fortune, and wealth. Today, small effigies of Ugajin are still worshipped independently of Benzaiten in temples, shrines, and private homes for a host of mundane benefits. Two additional texts appeared in later times. The set was then called the Five Sutra of Benzaiten 弁天五部経 (Benten Gobukyō).
  1. Bussetsu Saishō Gokoku Ugaya Tontoku Nyōi Hōju Darani-Kyō 仏説最勝護国宇賀耶得如意宝珠陀羅尼経. Herein King Uga (aka Ugajin) manifests as an 8-armed goddess; atop her head is a coiled white snake with an old man's face; introduces 15 princes (young boys, attendants).
  2. Bussetsu Sokushin Bontenfukutoku Enman Ugajinshō Bosatsu Hakujaku Jigen Mikka Jōju-Kyō
    仏説即身貧転福得円満宇賀神将菩薩白蛇示現三日成就経. <Alternative Reading
    Alternative Reading

    In modern times, the sutra's title is also pronounced as:

    Bussetsu Sokushin Hinden Fukutoku Enman Ugajinshou Bosatsu Byakuja Jigen San Nichi Jouju-Kyou
    > Says the snake-bodied human-headed Divine Bosatsu Commander Uga is Anavatapta 阿那婆達多龍王, one of eight great naga (dragon-snake) kings, thus linking him to India's earlier naga lore; manifests as a coiled white snake; proclaims his ability to transform poverty into good fortune; says chanting his mantra on snake and boar days occurring between the 1st and 15th of the lunar month will invoke his spirit, which will then reside in the northwest corner of his followers residences and engender blessings and fortunes; this text is the likely origin of old Japanese beliefs that dreaming of a white snake or seeing one are omens of great fortune and monetary gain.
  3. Bussetsu Ugajin'ō Fukutoku Enman Darani-Kyō 仏説宇賀神王福得円満陀羅尼経. Describes the symbolism of a two-armed, sword-wielding, jewel-holding, snake-crowned Uga Benzaiten; the white snake destroys greed, the sword overcomes obstacles, and the wish-granting jewel conquers hunger and thirst; the jewel corresponds to Ugajin and his granting of good fortune; the sword personifies Benzaiten and her role as defender of Buddhist law (as per the Sutra of Golden Light). <source: Catherine Ludvik
    References:

    Catherine Ludvik, Uga-Benzaiten: The Goddess and the Snake, pp. 95-110, which appeared in Impressions, The Journal of the Japanese Art Society of America, Number 33, 2012. When describing the iconography of the two-armed Uga Benzaiten appearing in the Three Benten Sutras, Ludvik cites the work of Yamamoto Hiroko, Ijin: Chu-sei Nihon no hikyo-teki sekai, or Strange Gods: The World of Secret Teachings of Medieval Japan, Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1989, pp. 476, 481, and 482.

    > NOTE: This iconic two-armed from is closely related to Dai Benzaiten.
  4. Bussetsu Dai Uga Kudoku Benzaiten-Kyō 仏説大宇賀神功徳弁才天経
  5. Dai-Benzaiten Nyo Himitsu Darani-Kyō 大弁才天女秘密陀羅尼経

    NOTE: Says Catherine Ludvik:
    References:

    Quoted from Ludvik's article Uga-Benzaiten: The Goddess and the Snake, p. 98, Impressions, The Journal of the Japanese Art Society of America, Number 33, 2012.
    "The Three Benten Sutras are Buddhist texts and therefore identify Ugajin as a Buddhist deity, both as a nāga and as a bodhisattva. He is a complicated figure with multiple identities -- kami, bodhisattva, and nāga."

    <Sources: Kokugakuin University Database, National Diet Library, Benzaiten scholar Catherine Ludvik
    References: Catherine Ludvik is the preeminent Western scholar today covering Benzaiten lore and art in India, China, and Japan.

    15th Asian Studies Conference Japan (ASCJ), International Christian University (ICU), 25 June 2011. Presentation entitled Benzaiten and Ugajin: The Skillful Combining of Deities. (Session 16: Room 253).

    Also see Ludvik's article Uga-Benzaiten: The Goddess and the Snake, pp. 95-110, which appeared in Impressions, The Journal of the Japanese Art Society of America, Number 33, 2012.
    , International Research Center for Japanese Studies, and Merumo.ne.jp

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Main Forms & Functions of Benzaiten in Japan
Click any image to jump to details / photos about that specific form

Jump to 8-Armed Benzaiten Section
Happi Benzaiten
8-Armed Version
Warrior Goddess
Defender of the State
Details Here

Jump to Two-Armed Beauty Playing Biwa Section
Myō-on Benzaiten
Playing Biwa.
Music Goddess.
Main Iconic Form.
Details Here

Jump to Daibenzaiten Section
Daibenten; holds sword and jewel; Bestower of
Virtue & Merit.
Details Here

Jump to Nude Benzaiten Section
Hadaka Benten
Nude deity playing biwa.
Kami of Art.
Details Here

Jump to Uga Benzaiten Section
Uga Benzaiten
Snake & shrine gate atop head
Food kami.
Details Here

Jump to Tenkawa Benzaiten Section
Tenkawa Benten
 Amanogawa; three white snake heads
Food kami.
Details Here

8th Century Onward
Traditional Form

9th Century
Onward

Late 12th Century Onward
Goddess of music, art, warriors, wealth, luck. Worshipped independently.

Benzaiten, the water goddess, comes in many forms, is worshiped in many ways, and is said to bring all manner of material gain. Some of her roles include Goddess of Water, Learning, Oral Eloquence, Music, Poetry, Speech, Rhetoric, Performing Arts, Wealth, Longevity, one who can end droughts or deluges (and is thus said to control dragons), one who protects the nation against natural disaster, and one who protects warriors and brings victory on the battlefield. In many ways, she is best classified as a native "Shintoized" kami rather than an imported "Buddhasized" deity. Her depictions in Japan differ greatly from her conventional portrait found in the Golden Light Sutra, the Dainichi-kyō, and other scriptures, thus highlighting the development of Japan's own unique Benzaiten cult. Her traditional eight-armed martial form and two-armed mandala form underwent significant alteration from the 12th-13th centuries onward. Primary changes included (1) putting a shrine gate and human-headed snake (Ugajin) atop her head, (2) replacing some of the weapons in her hands with wealth-bringing icons, (3) carving her in the nude, (4) linking her to the wish-granting jewel and to jewel-carrying dragons, snakes, and foxes, (5) linking her to numerous Hindu-Buddhist-Kami deities in a convoluted -- even confusing -- web of associations; and (6) depicting her as a monstrous three-headed snake. The below sections explore her various forms both chronologically and thematically, followed by her associations.

Hindu-Buddhist Associations
Hindu-Buddhist Associations

Kami Associations
Kami Associations

Animal Associations
Animal Associations

 

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Happi Benzaiten 八臂弁財天
Eight Arms Holding Weapons, Defender of Buddhism & Nation

 

 

Oldest extant sculpture of Benzaiten, 8th century
Japan's oldest Benzaiten statue.
754 AD, Sangatsudō 三月堂,
Tōdaiji Temple 東大寺 in Nara.
8-armed standing clay image,
badly damaged. Paired with
equally old Kichijōten statue.

Modern Reproduction of the 8th Century Benzaiten Statue, Nara National Museum
Modern Reproduction, Clay
Nara National Museum
Photos by M. Schumacher

Click here to read Nara Museum placard for this statue reproduction.
Happi Benzaiten, a weapon-wielding warrior goddess. Form first introduced to Japan. Happi 八臂 literally means "eight arms." These arms hold martial implements, symbolizing Benzaiten's role as defender of Buddhism and protector of the state. Her attributes are described in an early 8th-century Chinese translation (by Yijing) of the Sutra of Golden Light, wherein Yijing describes her with eight hands holding a bow 弓 (yumi), arrow 箭 (sen), sword 刀 (katana), ax 斧 (ono), spear 三股戟 (sankogeki), long pestle 独鈷杵(tokkosho), iron wheel 輪 (rin), and rope 羂索 (kenjaku). However, in artwork, the objects she holds don't always conform to the sutra -- over time, some of her weapons were replaced with wealth-bringing icons such as the wish-granting jewel and the key to the storehouse. See Objects & Symbols for the significance of these items. The oldest Japanese example of Happi Benzaiten is an 8th-century clay sculpture at Tōdaiji 東大寺. It is badly damaged (see photo at right). Another old statue of the eight-armed Benzaiten, dated to the late 10th century, is located at Kohonji Temple 孝恩寺 in Osaka (see photo here). In later centuries, the 8-armed form of Benzaiten remained popular among samurai warriors, including Minamoto Yoritomo 源頼朝 (1147-1199; the first shogun), Oda Nobunaga 織田信長 (1534-1582; the great unifier), Toyotomi Hideyoshi 豊臣秀吉 (1536-1598; Nobunaga's chief general), and Kobayakawa Takakage 小早川隆景 (1533-1597; a powerful daimyo and ally of Hideyoshi). The multi-armed form was also appropriated by the Shugendō and Shintō camps to create syncretic snake-headed deities such as Tenkawa Benzaiten and the snake-atop-head Uga Benzaiten. The Golden Light Sutra mentions a gold-colored six-armed manifestation of Benzaiten called Konkōmyō Benten 金光明弁天 (see image below), but artwork of this version is much less prevalent. Recent research by Catherine Ludvik
References: Works by Catherine Ludvik, the preeminent scholar of Benzaiten lore and artwork in India, China, and Japan.

From Sarasvati to Benzaiten (India, China, Japan). Ph.D. dissertation. University of Toronto, January 2001. South and East Asian Religions. Winner of the Governor General's Gold Medal 2001.

Also see Sarasvati Riverine Goddess of Knowledge: From the Manuscript-Carrying Vina-player to the Weapon-Wielding. 2007. 374 pages. Drawing on Sanskrit and Chinese textual sources, as well as Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist art historical representations, this book traces the conceptual and iconographic development of the goddess of knowledge Sarasvati from some time after 1750 B.C.E. to the seventh century C.E. Through the study of Chinese translations of no longer extant Sanskrit versions of the Buddhist 'Sutra of Golden Light' the author sheds light on Sarasvati's interactions with other Indian goddess cults and their impact on one another.

Also see La Benzaiten a huit bras: Durga deesse guerriere sous l'apparence de Sarasvati," Cahiers d'Extreme-Asie, no. 11 (1999-2000), pp. 292-338.

Also see Metamorphoses of a Goddess. Kyoto Journal KJ #62, 2006

Also see the 15th Asian Studies Conference Japan (ASCJ), International Christian University (ICU), 25 June 2011. Presentation entitled Benzaiten and Ugajin: The Skillful Combining of Deities. (Session 16: Room 253).
shows that the multi-armed martial Benzaiten was derived in large part from Hindu battle goddess Durgā 突迦 (C=Tújiā, Jp=Toga). Durgā is an aspect of Kālī (the black one, death, wife of Śiva). Kālī is typically depicted in India with one face and eight arms, or three faces and six arms. As we shall discover, Benzaiten shares overlapping iconography with numerous Hindu deities of battle, death, and blackness, e.g., Yama, Mahākāla, Dakini, Durgā, Kālī.

Happi Benzaiten (8-Armed Benten) at Enoshima Jinja
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8-Armed Uga Benzaiten with snake atop head
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Happi Benzaiten (8-Armed Benten)
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8-Armed Benzaiten at Hase Dera Temple in Kamakura
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  1. Happi Benzaiten (8-Armed Benzaiten). At the Hōan-den 奉安殿, Enoshima Jinja 江島神社 (Enoshima Island, Japan), Kamakura Era. Kanagawa Prefectural Asset. Wood. H = 59.2 cm, Yosegi-zukuri joined-block technique, crystal eyes.  Legend says shogun Minamoto Yoritomo asked the Buddhist monk Mongaku 文覚 to make this statue to curse his enemies. Since the Edo period, it has been prayed to by samurai seeking protection on the battle field and victory in war. Photo and data from Kamakura Butsuzo Meguri Magazine 鎌倉仏像めぐり (Gakken), 15 June 2010, p. 75.
  2. Benzaiten Mandala. Early Edo era. H = 83 cm, W = 38.5. This small cutout from the mandala depicts the 8-armed Uga Benzaiten surrounded by 15 disciples, Daikokuten, & Bishamonten. Location unknown. <Photo Source>
  3. Happi Benzaiten Mandala, Kōyasan Shinnō-in Temple 高野山・親王院. Mid Edo era. <Photo Museum Reihokan Kōyasan and the Seven Benten Sites at Kōyansan 高野山七弁天>
  4. Happi Benzaiten. Stone, Hase Dera (Kamakura). Hase Dera claims it was made by Kōbō Daishi (774-835), the famed founder of Japan's Shingon sect of Esoteric Buddhism, but this is unsupported by all evidence and should be dismissed as crass modern-day commercialism. The statue is modern. It is no longer located on the grounds, but rather inside the cave devoted to Benzaiten's 16 Daughters. Photo by Mark Schumacher.
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Happi Benzaiten drawing from the 12th-century Besson Zakki
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Happi Benzaiten drawing from the 1690 Butsuzo-zui
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Happi Benzaiten drawing from the 1783 Butsuzo-zui

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Golden Light Benten from the 1783 Butsuzo-zui

Eight-Armed Benzaiten,
drawing, 12th Century,
from the Besson Zakki 別尊雑記,
a Buddhist text compiled by Shingon
monk Shinkaku 心覚  (1116-1180) and translated as "Miscellaneous Record of Classified Sacred Images.ges."

Eight-Armed Benzaiten,
drawing from the 1690
Butsuzō-zu-i 仏像図彙.
What looks like a snake
is shown atop her head.
Name spelled as 辯才天

Eight-Armed Benzaiten,
drawing from the 1783
Butsuzō-zu-i. What looks like a snake is shown atop her head. Objects in hands changed slightly compared to 1690 image.
Spelling changed to 辯財天

8-Armed Konkōmyō Benten
金光明辯天, lit. Golden Light
Benten. Drawing from the 1783 Butsuzō-zu-i. Depicts deity as described in the Konkōmyō
saishō ō kyō 金光明最勝王経
(aka Golden Light Sutra).


 

8-armed Benzaiten and her four attendants appearing on an early 12th century zushi

Eight-armed Benzaiten & Four Attendants 弁才天および四眷属像
Appearing on one panel of an early 12th century zushi 厨子 (tabernacle). H = 103.6 cm, W = 62.1 cm. In the center we see Benzaiten standing atop a rocky mountain surrounded by four attendants (kenzoku 眷属). This painting symbolizes protection of the state, the granting of children, and the promise of prosperity. In the upper portion are two protective martial deities, while the lower section depicts two goddesses -- Kichijōten 吉祥天, the wish-granting goddess of beauty and merit (depicted here surrounded by children), and Kenrōchijin 堅牢地神, the earth goddess (shown holding an offering basket). Kichijōten also appears as a servant of Benzaiten in the Tenkawa Benzaiten Mandala, and in fact is often confused with Daibenzaiten (another iconic form of Benzaiten).

The other panels of the zushi depict the Four Heavenly Kings (Guardians of the Nation and Four Directions), along with Bonten 梵天 and Taishakuten 帝釈天像. A treasure formerly at Jōruriji Temple 浄瑠璃寺 in Kyoto, but now at the Tokyo University of the Arts (Tokyo Geijutsu Daigaku 東京藝術大学).

Photo from Vol. 6, Selected Relics of Japanese Art, 20 Volume Set, Photographs & Collotypes by K. Ogawa, Published by Shimbi Shoin (Nippon Shimbi), 1899~1908. For photos of the entire zushi, see Univ. Art Museum, Tokyo Univ. of the Arts.

 

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Benzaiten and the Heian-Era Mandala
Two-Armed Beauty Playing Biwa

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Sarasvati, 10th century, British Museum

Sarasvatī, 10th century, India
From Mathurā, Stone Carving
H = 68.6 cm, The British Museum
Writes Ludvik.
Reference: Catherine Ludvik, the preeminent scholar of Benzaiten lore and artwork in India, China, and Japan.

Uga-Benzaiten: The Goddess and the Snake, p. 95, Impressions, The Journal of the Japanese Art Society of America, Number 33, 2012.
: "She holds a zither in her natural hands, and a rosary and palm-leaf manuscript wrapped in cloth in her additional right and left hands."

In Japan, wooden sculptures of Benzaiten in the Nara (710-794) and Heian (794-1185) periods emphasized her eight-armed martial form as a defender of the nation as described in the Golden Light Sutra. But the introduction of Mikkyō 密教 (Esoteric Buddhism) and the mandala art form in the early 9th century stressed instead Benzaiten's role as the goddess of music and portrayed her as a two-armed beauty playing the biwa 琵琶 (four-stringed lute). This iconic two-armed biwa-playing image of Benzaiten was probably derived from earlier depictions in India, where Sarasvatī was portrayed by at least the 6th century CE playing the zither. <source: Ludvik.
Reference: Catherine Ludvik, the preeminent scholar of Benzaiten lore and artwork in India, China, and Japan.

Uga-Benzaiten: The Goddess and the Snake, p. 96, Impressions, The Journal of the Japanese Art Society of America, Number 33, 2012.
> In Japan, she appears throughout the Heian era in the Taizōkai Mandala 胎蔵界曼荼羅 (Womb World, Matrix Mandala). This portrayal reflects her conflation with Myō-on Bosatsu 妙音菩薩 (Wondrous Sound Bodhisattva). The latter is described in the 24th chapter of the extremely popular Lotus Sutra -- translated into Chinese by Kumārajīva 鳩摩羅什 (350 - 410), aka Kumarajū in Japan -- wherein we learn that, in a previous life, Myō-on offered homage in the form of hundreds of thousands of kinds of music. Benzaiten, as the Japanese goddess of music, is commonly equated with Myō-on Bosatsu. Why the biwa rather than some other musical instrument? It's hard to say unequivocally, but in Japan, the ritual performance of biwa was used in association with the cult of Myō-on Bosatsu by at least the late 8th century. Also, in Japan, the practice of chanting sutra with biwa music reportedly started around the same time. <source: Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music> Both deities (Myō-on Bosatsu and Benzaiten) appear regularly in the Taizōkai Mandala, Myō-on in the Monju-in Court 文殊院 (near the East Gate) and Benzaiten in the Saige-in Court 最外院 (near the West Gate). Myō-on is commonly shown holding a lotus or a sutra box (bonkyō 梵篋) in the left hand, while Benzaiten is typically depicted playing the biwa. In the Edo era (1615-1868), the two-armed biwa-playing form clearly eclipsed the martial eight-armed form in artwork due largely to Benzaiten's enlistment as one of Japan's Seven Lucky Gods.

PHOTO AT RIGHT. At her feet is her vehicle (Skt. = Vāhana), the haṃsa, a fowl resembling a goose or swan. In India, she is often shown playing a vina (zither) and often depicted with four arms.

Benzaiten and Myo-on Bosatsu and the Taizokai MandalaMyo-on Bosatsu

PHOTO: Taizōkai Mandala 胎蔵界曼荼羅 (Genzu Version 現図曼荼羅), still widely used and replicated by Japan's Shingon 真言 and Tendai 天台 sects. Although the Genzu format can vary somewhat, it generally includes around 414 deities arranged systematically into 12 sections. Above clipart from the Mandara Zuten 曼荼羅図典 (The Mandala Dictionary). 1993. Japanese language. 422 pages. Published by Daihorinkaku 大法輪閣. ISBN-10: 480461102-9.

 

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Benzaiten with Two Arms Playing the Biwa
Goddess of Music. Most Common Form in Modern Japan.

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Benzaiten playing Biwa (from the 12-century Besson Zakki
Benzaiten Playing Biwa
Most common form in Japan.
From the 12th-century Japanese
text Besson Zakki 別尊雑記
(Miscellaneous Record of
Classified Sacred Images).

Most common form in contemporary Japan. A two-armed beautiful woman dressed in a flowing Chinese-style gown and playing a four-stringed lute (biwa 琵琶). She is also said to play the flute, but this latter form is less prevalent. Benzaiten's iconic biwa-playing form appeared early on in Japanese mandala paintings of the Heian era (794 to 1185) but only came to prominence in the Kamakura era (1185-1333). Second, her rise to popularity in the 12th-13th centuries was probably linked to the continuing popularity of the biwa at court functions in those days, sparked in part by Fujiwara no Moronaga 藤原師長 (1138-1192), one of the greatest musicians of his age -- his biwa scores, even today, are considered the pinnacle of notation for this instrument. Third, the widespread popularity of the Lotus Sutra likely played a role. Its 24th chapter is entitled Myō-on-bon 妙音品, in which Myō-on Bosatsu 妙音菩薩 (Wondrous Sound Bodhisattva) is described. Benzaiten is commonly equated with Myō-on Bosatsu as the goddess of music. Fujiwara no Moronaga was also known as Lord Myōon'in in his day. Fourth, her linkage with Ugajin (snake kami of wealth) propelled her dissemination throughout Japan. These and other factors helped to underpin the rising prestige of Benzaiten and her three main island sanctuaries -- ltsukushima, Enoshima, and Chikubushima. All three sanctuaries were patronized in the 12th century by powerful people like Taira no Kiyomori 平清盛 (1118-1181), Minamoto no Yoritomo 源頼朝 (1147-1199), and others. It was around this same time that Benzaiten became the object of her own independent cult. Her popularity skyrocketed in the Edo period (1603-1868) in her new role as one of Japan's wealth-brining Seven Lucky Gods, wherein her two-armed biwa-playing form became widely known among the masses. Today it remains her most endearing form among artists and the common folk, followed perhaps by her combinatory eight-armed Kami-Buddha representation as Uga Benzaiten.

Benzaiten playing the biwa
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Benzaiten playing the biwa, British Museum
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Benzaiten playing the biwa, Butsuzozu-i
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Benzaiten playing the biwa, stone statue, Early Showa era
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Benzaiten playing the biwa, modern stone effigy
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  1. Benzaiten Playing Biwa atop a rock surrounded by the sea. Scroll, colors on silk, H = 104 cm, W = 39 cm, 14th Century, Kōyasan Hōjyōin Temple 高野山宝城院. <Photo: Treasures of a Sacred Mountain. Kukai and Mount Koya. The 1200-Year Anniversary of Kukai's Visit to Tang-Dynasty China. Tokyo National Museum, exhibit catalog, 2004. Also see Museum Reihōkan Koyasan, also see Seven Benten Sites at Kōyansan>
  2. Benzaiten Playing Biwa, Hanging Scroll, Kamakura / Muromachi era, 14th century AD. Most paintings of Benzaiten from this period depict her as a beauty in Chinese costume but here she appears as a bodhisattva with jeweled crown & necklace. <Photo The British Museum>
  3. Butsuzō-zu-i 仏像図彙, "Collected Illustrations of Buddhist Images." First published in 1690 (Genroku 元禄 3). A major Japanese dictionary of Buddhist iconography. However, this image comes from the expanded 1783 version.
  4. Woodblock print of Benzaiten playing biwa. By artist Tomikawa Fusanobu 富川房信, fl. 1750-70. <Photo Source>
  5. Stone statue. Private home in Kamakura. Early 20th century. <Photo = Mark Schumacher>
  6. Stone Statue. Early Showa Era, Takaosan Yakuō-in Temple 高尾山薬王院, Tokyo. <Photo Source>

Other Manifestations of Benzaiten Playing Biwa
The deity sometimes faces left, sometimes right. This has no significance (to my knowledge).

Itsukushima (an avatar) of Benzaiten
Itsukushima 厳島
Butsuzō-zui (1690)
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Kinyosho -- a star deity with similar iconography as Benzaiten
Kinyō Shō 金曜星
Butsuzō-zui (1690)
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Myo-on Benzaiten -- a manifestation of Benzaiten
Myō-on Benzaiten 妙音
Butsuzō-zui (1690)
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Golden Light Benzaiten
Kōmyō-ō 光明王菩薩
Butsuzō-zui (1690)
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  1. Itsukushima 厳島 playing biwa, the island kami-goddess at Itsukushima Jinja Shrine 厳島神社 on Miyajima Island 宮島 (Hiroshima Pref.), aka Ichikishima Hime 厳島姫命, Itsukushima Myōjin 厳島明神, Miyajima Gongen 厳島権現, Miyajima Myōjin 厳島明神, or Itsukushima Myō-on Benzaiten 厳島妙音弁財天 ("wondreous sound" island kami-goddess). She was conflated with Benzaiten by at least the late Heian period (10th or 11th centuries). In the Kamakura era, she was adopted as one of four tutelary deities at Mt. Kōya (headquarters of the esoteric Shingon sect). These four are known as the Kōya Shisho Gongen 高野四所権現 (or Kōya Shisha Myōjin 高野四社明神, or Shigū Gongen 四宮権現). The text in this image says she is associated with Niu Gongen 丹生権現 (aka Niu Myōjin 丹生明神) and the Shigū Gongen (four guardians of the four shrines of Mt. Kōya), and states she is the kami incarnation (suijaku 垂迹) of Benzaten (her honji 本地 or "original manifestation"). See Itsukushima for more.
  2. Kinyō Shō 金曜星 (Venus) playing biwa; bird atop head. She is one of the Nine Luminaries (Kuyō 九曜). Associated with the planet Venus (Kinsei 金星 or Taibyaku 太白), metal, west, and Friday; considered the kami incarnation (suijaku 垂迹) of Amida Nyorai and Seishi Bosatsu. SPECULATION. Why does Kinyō Shō (Venus) appear similar to Benzaiten (i.e., goddess playing biwa) and why does a bird-like creature appear atop her head? The most probable theories involve wordplay and animal associations. Venus (金星 or 金曜星) is written with the character Kin 金, meaning gold, and represents metal (one of the five elements). If we recall, Benzaiten is introduced in the Sutra of Golden Light 金光明經. Since Benzaiten is a goddess of wealth, her linkage with earthly treasures (gold, silver) is most appropriate. At Kinkazan 金華山 (Gold Lotus Mountain), one of her five main sanctuaries in modern Japan, Benzaiten is venerated together with Kanayama Biko no Kami 金山毘古神 (male) and Kanayama Bime no Kami 金山毘賣神 (female), the Shintō tutelaries of metals and mines. Gold and earthly treasure also leads us to Bishamonten (lord of treasure, dispenser of riches). He appears often in Benzaiten artwork, and along with her, is one of Japan's Seven Gods of Good Fortune. His messenger, the centipede, is credited with the ability to sniff out gold mines in mountain deposits. In image two (above), the bird atop Kinyō's head also leads us to Benzaiten. In artwork from India, Sarasvati (aka Benzaiten) is commonly shown sitting atop or accompanied by a peacock, white swan, or a fowl resembling a goose. There are other "possible" linkages between Venus and Benzaiten, e.g., the advantages of the planet to sea navigators blends well with Benzaiten's role as guardian of  those plying Japan's waterways. Curiously, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321 CE) associated Venus with the liberal art of rhetoric. In Japan, Benzaiten is translated as " Goddess of Eloquent Discourse."
  3. Myō-on Benzaiten 妙音天弁才天 (lit. "Wondrous Sound Benzaiten") playing biwa. In Japan, Benzaiten is commonly equated with Myō-on Bosatsu 妙音菩薩 (Wondrous Sound Bodhisattva), Myō-on-ten 妙音天 (Heavenly Sound Deva), or Bionten / Mionten 美音天 (Beautiful Sound Deva). Their iconography is identical. Details above. The text next to Myō-on's face says "Honji Shaka 本地釋迦," meaning she is the suijaku 垂迹 (trace) of Shaka Nyorai (the Historical Buddha).
  4. Kōmyō-ō Bosatsu 光明王菩薩 (lit. "Luminous Bodhisattva King) playing biwa. One of the 25 Bodhisattva (Nijūgo Bosatsu 二十五菩薩) who, along with Amida Nyorai, welcome into paradise those who call upon Amida in their last moments of life; in this paradise, the deceased are no longer trapped in the cycle of suffering and can devote all their efforts toward attaining enlightenment. Kōmyō-ō Bosatsu appears with similar icongraphy as Benzaiten, perhaps due simply to word play -- Kōmyō-ō's name contains the same characters as the name of the Golden Light Sutra, spelled variously as Kōmyō kyō 光明經, or 金光明經, or 金光明最勝王経. The Kōmyō kyō scripture has a section devoted to Benzaiten, but mentions nothing at all about 25 Bodhisattva.

More Artwork of Benzaiten Playing Biwa

Enoshima Benzaiten, 19th century, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
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Benzaiten, 19th century, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
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Benzaiten, 18th century, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
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Big Benzaiten, Shinminato City, Toyama Prefecture, 1986
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Benzaiten Playing Biwa, Modern, Early 21st Century

8-Armed Benzaiten atop Dragon, Meiji Era (1886), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Sarasvati playing biwa, peacock at her side. By Indian artist Raja Ravi Varma.

Sea Goddess playing biwa while standing atop dragon. Hand-colored albumen photograph, circa 1898.

  1. Enoshima Benzaiten 江の島弁財天 playing biwa while riding atop a dragon (her servant & avatar). By Aoigaoka Keisei 葵岡渓栖 (active, 1st half 19th century). Edo era, 1833, woodblock, ink & color on paper. Photo Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
  2. Woman Representing Benzaiten playing biwa, from series Allusions to Seven Lucky Gods (Mitate Shichifukujin 見立七福神・弁天), by Yashima Gakutei 八島岳亭 (1786?-1868), Edo era, late 1820s, woodblock print; ink & color on paper. Photo Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
  3. Benzaiten playing biwa (entitled Benzaiten zu 弁財天図). Sits atop rocky island, with ocean waves at bottom of painting. By Ogawa Haritsu 小川破笠 (1663–1747). Edo era, early 18th century, hanging scroll; ink & color on silk, H = 86.5 cm, W = 42.4 cm. Photo Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
  4. Big Benzaiten 新湊弁財天 of Shinminato City, Toyama Prefecture. Made in 1986. Material = Aluminum. Height 9.2 meters. Photo = This J-Site. Overlooks & protects the western bay area in Shinminato City 新湊市 (Toyama Prefecture), befitting her role as a water goddess. Read History of Big Benzaiten in Toyama (J only)
  5. Benzaiten playing biwa while sitting atop a lotus leaf on a rocky island surrounded by water and clouds. By modern painter Watanabe 渡邉照裕 of the Shinpukuji Buddhist Art School 真福寺仏画導場 associated with the Shingon-sect temple Shinpukuji 真福寺 in Kyoto. In this painting, she appears as a bodhisattva with jeweled crown and necklace. Photo from the Shinpukuji Buddhist Art School. Also see here.
  6. 8-Armed Benzaiten atop dragon; surrounded by water and clouds. Meiji Era (about 1886). By Japanese artist Hashimoto Gahō 橋本雅邦 (1835-1908). H = 164.5 cm, W = 117.5 cm. Photo Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
  7. Sarasvati playing biwa next to a river, with a peacock at her side. Oleograph by India painter Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906), whose many paintings often depict epic characters from Hindu mythology. Photo Cyberkerala.
  8. Sea Goddess Benzaiten playing biwa while standing atop a dragon. Hand-colored albumen photograph. Appeared originally in the "Deluxe Edition, Volume IX" of Japan, Described and Illustrated by the Japanese, by Okakura Kakuzo and Frank (Captain) Brinkley. Published in 1897-1898. Photo from Baxleystamps. A digitized version of the book is available online at the Openliberary.org.

 


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Naked Sculptures of Benzaiten
Hadaka Benzaiten 裸弁才天、Ragyō Benzaiten 裸形弁才天

 

During Japan's Kamakura period (1185-1332), artists for the first time began to create "naked" sculptures of Buddhist deities. The object of their artistic talents was often Benzaiten, although other deities, like Jizō Bosatsu and Amida Nyorai, were also sculpted in the nude. But these nude icons were dressed in clothing prior to public viewing and ritual ceremonies. The practice of carving nude statues may have originated in China, although there is scant evidence to support this claim. Although naked statues became popular in the Kamakura era, the practice was never firmly established -- only 100 or so extant statues of nude deities are known in Japan. Examples include the nude statues of Benzaiten shown below, plus the Naked Jizō of Denkōji Temple 伝香寺 in Nara (dated to 1228), the nude version of the Substitute Jizō (Migawari Jizō) at Enmeiji Temple 延命寺 in Kamakura (13th century), and the unclothed 13th-century Amida statue at the Nara National Museum. The reasons for carving statues in the nude are unknown, but Mori Hisashi says it reflects the "enthusiasm of the warriors of eastern Japan for the new and exotic." <Mori, page 167>. Another possible reason, says scholar Iyanaga Nobumi, was the prevalence of the eight-armed warrior version of Benzaiten in those bygone days. This led to the gentle two-armed version getting some of that power -- with her nudity expressing an "excess of erotic power." <see full Iyanaga quote below>. Let us also recall that preparations and rites were often conducted in Japan from the earliest time onward to bring icons "to life" (Shōjin Butsu 生身仏, literally "Living Buddha") to convert them from inert objects into living entities with miraculous powers. Such methods included washing the wood (prior to construction) in purification rites, the chanting of darani, the insertion of relics and dedicatory inscriptions, the provision of real clothing, and the eye-opening ceremony (kaigen kuyō 開眼供養). <see Goepper pp 73-77, also Rosenfield, p. 160.>

Enoshima Benzaiten, Myo-on Ten, Hoan-den (Enoshima), Naked Statue
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Benzaiten - Goddess of Fine Arts, Nude Wood Statue, Hase Kannon, Kamakura
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Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine (Kamakura), Naked Benten
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Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine (Kamakura), Naked Benten
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  1. Naked Benten (aka Myō-on Ten 妙音天) at the Hōan-den 奉安殿 on Enoshima Island. H = 55 cm. Dated to the last half of the Muromachi era (1392-1573), but underwent major repairs in modern times; reportedly re-painted every 20 years. At Enoshima, the nude statue of Benten is painted milk white and never dressed in cloths. Temple monks say the humid sea air around the island causes the dyes of the cloth to come off and stain her. Photo: Wada Yoshio.
  2. Naked Benzaiten. Nemuri Benten 眠り弁天 (lit. Resting Benten or Sleeping Benzaiten). Date Unknown (probably modern). Hase Dera Temple, Kamakura, Japan. Photo Schumacher. See another photo of a half-dressed reclining Benzaiten at Tōgenji Temple 桃厳寺, Nagoya City.
  3. Naked Benten (missing biwa), Painted Wood, H = 96 cm. Dated 1266. Housed at the Kamakura Kokuhōkan Museum 鎌倉国宝館, located at Tsurugaoka Hachimangū Shrine 鶴岡八幡宮 in Kamakura. Photo from Tsurugaoka Hachimangū. Donated to the shrine in 1266 CE by a shrine musician named Nakahara Mitsu-uji 中原光氏. It was reportedly installed in the Bugaku-in 舞楽院 (no longer extant), a center for the performance of shrine dances. <source: The Arts of Japan, Ancient and Medieval, by Seiroku Noma, p. 282>
  4. Dressed in silk robes. H = 96 cm. Dated 1266. Photo: Tsurugaoka Hachimangū, Kamakura. Same details as photo #3. 

benzaiten-naked-enoshima-jinja-kamakura-statues-mag-BIG
Naked Benten (Enoshima Island)
Another image of Photo #1 above.
Photo by 太田亭 from magazine 鎌倉仏像めぐり,
p. 74, Published by Gakken Mook, 16 June 2010.

Naked Benzaiten, Enoshima, Before Her Repair, 1952
Naked Benten (Enoshima Island)
Old photo of Image #1 above before its repair.
Photo scanned from Kisho 奇書, No. 5, Nov. 1952
Photo from this-Jsite

During the forced separation of Buddhism-Shintōsim in the early Meiji Period (1868-1912), Enoshima was converted into a shrine and its Benzaiten icons were "dumped into a corner" of a hall dedicated to Ichikishima-hime and "local children played with them." <quotes from Kondo Takahiro> When Benzaiten was restored after the war, the nude statue was missing its left hand, left leg, and right ankle. These had to be replaced. Today the statue is on public display in an octagonal hall known as Hōan-den 奉安殿, but for most of its history, the statue was hidden from the public gaze and exhibited only once every six years (in the year of the snake and year of the boar), said to be especially effective times to worship this divinity.

 


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Uga Benzaiten 宇賀弁財天
Syncretic Form with Snake & Shrine Gate Atop Head

ESOTERIC MANTRA FOR UGA BENZAITEN <source: Three Benten Sutra>
なむびゃくじゃぎょう ・ うがやじゃやぎゃらべい ・ しんだまに ・ ひんでんうんそわか
Namu Byakujagyō ・ Ugaya jaya gyarabei ・ Shindamani ・ Hinden Un Sowaka


Happi Benzaiten, Kohonji Temple, Osaka, Late 10th Century
8-Armed Uga Benzaiten.
Syncretic form with snake kami Ugajin
and Shinto torii 鳥居 (gate) in her headdress. Kohonji Temple 孝恩寺,
Jōdo Sect, Osaka. Wood,  H = 117.6 cm. Late Heian era. The snake & torii
 added in later. Photo this J-site.

Oldest extant wooden statue of the 8-armed Uga Benzaiten in Japan, 14th century.

Oldest extant wood statue (early 14th C) of the 8-armed Uga Benzaiten in Japan.
Located at Kannon-ji Temple 観音寺, Iwade City, Wakayama Pref.
H = 65.2 cm. Photo Wakayama Pref. Museum. Scanned from Impressions
issue #33,
2012. <source Ludivk
REFERENCE:

Catherine Ludvik, 15th Asian Studies Conference Japan (ASCJ), International Christian University (ICU), 25 June 2011. Presentation entitled Benzaiten and Ugajin: The Skillful Combining of Deities. (Session 16: Room 253).

The image of Japan's oldest Uga Benzaiten statue was scanned from Ludvik's article Uga-Benzaiten: The Goddess and the Snake, which appeared in Impressions, The Journal of the Japanese Art Society of America, Number 33, 2012. Ludvik's ASCJ presentation and her Impressions article present the same information.
>

Sometime during the latter half of Japan's Heian era (794-1185), the powerful Tendai sect on Mt. Hiei (near Kyoto) assisted in the merger of the Hindu-Buddhist deity Benzaiten with an obscure local snake kami (deity) of water, rice, good fortune, and wealth named Ugajin 宇賀神 (also called Hakujaku / Byakuja 白蛇 or Ukaya 宇賀耶) to create the combinatory deity known as Uga Benzaiten 宇賀弁財天. The snake kami had other titles as well, including Uga Shinnō 宇賀神王 (Divine King Uga) and Uga Shinshō 宇賀神将 (Divine General Uga) -- titles appearing in the apocryphal Three Sutra of Benten around the 13th century. From Mt. Hiei, the cult of Uga Benzaiten made its way to Chikubushima 竹生島 (Shiga Pref.), Itsukushima 厳島 (Hiroshima), Enoshima 江ノ島 (Kanagawa), Tenkawa 天川 (Nara), and elsewhere in Japan, with her iconography becoming increasingly complex. This linkage with Ugajin is one of the key wellsprings of Benzaiten's longstanding popularity in Japan. It heralded Benzaiten's "reconnection" with water, spearheaded her association with the food crop and wealth, and propelled her subsequent climb in popularity. Since Ugajin is a water kami of good fortune and wealth, the 才 (zai) of Benzaiten 弁才天 was replaced with its homonym 財 (zai), meaning wealth. By the Edo era, Uga Benzaiten had become a widespread object of worship among the masses as the deity of foodstuffs and wealth. In art, Ugajin (alone) is generally depicted as an old human-headed man with a white snake body, while the composite deity Uga Benzaiten is most commonly portrayed as an esoteric eight-armed goddess (see Happi Benzaiten above) with a male-faced serpent atop her head. A shrine gate often adorns her headdress as well (not mentioned in scriptures; perhaps symbolizing Inari, the extremely popular Japanese kami of the rice paddy, grain, cultivation, and prosperity; Inari lore involves Ugajin and other rice kami). The serpent and shrine gate atop her head are purely Japanese conventions / inventions -- and they clearly link Benzaiten to the Shintō camp. The objects in her hands, though, are slightly different from those held by the Eight-Armed Benzaiten -- some of the martial instruments have been replaced with the key to the treasure house, a treasure stick, and a wish-granting jewel.

Most sources believe Ugajin is the kami of foodstuffs Uga No Mitama 宇迦之御魂神 (Kojiki) or 倉稲魂命 (Nihongi). Also pronounced Uka no Mitama, this food kami appears in the Kojiki and Nihongi, two of Japan's earliest records, compiled in the early 8th century. Uga Benzaiten is further identified with Inari, the main Shintō god/goddess of rice and agriculture, who is identified with a white fox as his/her messenger. In paintings and mandalas (presented herein), Uga Benzaiten is often surrounded by Daikokuten (Japan's Buddhist god of agricultural and commerce), Bishamonten (Buddhist guardian of the north and treasure, and commander of the Four Heavenly Kings), the Hindu-Buddhist demi-goddess Dakiniten (whose messenger in Japan is a white fox; paired with kami Inari in Japan's Kami-Buddha matrix), and 15 sons or disciples stemming from the esoteric camp. Some, like author Chiba Reiko, say Uga Benzaiten is a jealous deity, that her jealousy is indicated by the white snakes coiled around her. Chiba also says court musicians who played the biwa in Japan's medieval period
Era Names & Dates:
Standard dating scheme found in both Japan and the West.
  • Ancient refers to the Asuka and Nara periods (538-794)
  • Classical refers to the Heian period (794-1185)
  • Medieval refers to the Kamakura era (1185-1333), Muromachi era (1336-1573), and Edo era (1600-1867)
  • Modern refers to everything since 1868 (Meiji, Taisho, Showa, & Heisei periods)

    NOTE: Ancient & Classical are sometimes used collectively to refer to everything through the Nara era. The Edo Period is also known as "Early Modern," while Meiji and after are the "Modern" period. The term "Premodern" refers to pre-Meiji.
remained single, for if they married, they feared they would incur the wrath of Benzaiten, who would take away their musical ability. Today, says Chiba, married couples who pray to Uga Benzaiten for a beautiful daughter are told to worship separately, never as a couple -- supposedly, if they worship Benzaiten at the same time, they will become separated.

Others, like art historian Alice Getty (d. 1946), suggest that Benzaiten's linkage with a white snake stems from confusion. "The White Tārā [of Indian origin] also holds a lute in two of her four hands, but the special attribute of goddess Tārā is a white snake. In Japan the white snake is believed to be a manifestation of Sarasvati (aka Benzaiten), from which we must infer that the Japanese have confounded the two goddesses." <source p. 113, Gods of Northern Buddhism; also see White Tara, p. 107> 

Benzaiten scholar Catherine Ludivk
Quoted From:

Catherine Ludvik, 15th Asian Studies Conference Japan (ASCJ), International Christian University (ICU), 25 June 2011. Presentation entitled Benzaiten and Ugajin: The Skillful Combining of Deities. (Session 16: Room 253).

Other Writings by Ludvik

From Sarasvati to Benzaiten (India, China, Japan). Ph.D. dissertation. University of Toronto, January 2001. South and East Asian Religions. Winner of the Governor General's Gold Medal 2001.

Also see Sarasvati Riverine Goddess of Knowledge: From the Manuscript-Carrying Vina-player to the Weapon-Wielding. 2007. 374 pages. Drawing on Sanskrit and Chinese textual sources, as well as Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist art historical representations, this book traces the conceptual and iconographic development of the goddess of knowledge Sarasvati from some time after 1750 B.C.E. to the seventh century C.E. Through the study of Chinese translations of no longer extant Sanskrit versions of the Buddhist 'Sutra of Golden Light' the author sheds light on Sarasvati's interactions with other Indian goddess cults and their impact on one another.

Also see La Benzaiten a huit bras: Durga deesse guerriere sous l'apparence de Sarasvati," Cahiers d'Extreme-Asie, no. 11 (1999-2000), pp. 292-338.

Also see Metamorphoses of a Goddess. Kyoto Journal KJ #62, 2006

Also see Uga-Benzaiten: The Goddess and the Snake, pp. 95-110. Impressions, The Journal of the Japanese Art Society of America, Number 33, 2012.
says the oldest extant wooden statue of the eight-armed Uga Benzaiten in Japan is found at Kannon-ji Temple 観音寺 in Wakayama Prefecture. "Ugajin was not added," says Ludvik, "but made at the same time as the statue. Often, however, Ugajin was added in later times." She continues: "The relationship of Ugajin and Benzaiten is one of opposition and cooperation. Pairs of opposites are brought together -- animal and human, male and female, old and young, small and large. Ugajin assumed an elevated position on Benzaiten's head. In the Uga-Benzaiten form, however, by virtue of Benzaiten's overwhelming size, it is the goddess who came to dominate. Benzaiten accommodated his presence, and Ugajin extended to her his sovereignty over wealth. As their unusual combination acquired fascinating representations, and the benefits they cooperatively offered appealed to the popular imagination, faith in both Ugajin and Benzaiten spread." <end quote> In the Edo era, Benzaiten was additionally associated with the mystic tortoise, a water creature closely related to Bishamonten -- both are guardians of the north and appear frequently in Benzaiten art.

Ugajin, Nakanoshinbashi
click to enlarge

Ugajin, Izumohara Benzaiten

Ugajin, Suzukuma Dera

Ugajin (Male), Koyasan Shinnouin
click to enlarge

Ugajin (Female), Reihokan Museum, Koyasan
click to enlarge

Benzaiten, Woodblock by XXXXXXX
click to enlarge

ugajin-butsuzou-jp-TN
click to enlarge

Uga Benzaiten
click to enlarge

benzaiten-Chikubushima-TN
click to enlarge

uga-benzaiten-kamakura-store-TN
click to enlarge

turtle-mystic-shosoin-nara-sketch

turtle-mystic-shosoin-nara-sketch-actual-stone

ugajin-atop-turtle-omamori-engagkuji
click to enlarge

ugajin-atop-turtle-sketch
click to enlarge

  1. Benzaiten with snake body. Stone, Fukuju-in Temple 福寿院, Nakanoshinbashi 中野新橋, Tokyo.
  2. Izumohara Benzaiten 出流原弁財天, Sano Seven Lucky Gods 佐野七福神. <Photo Source>
  3. Ugajin, Wood, H = 17 cm, Edo era, Suzukuma-dera Temple 鈴熊寺, Yoshitomi City, Fukuoka Pref. <Photo Source>
  4. Ugajin, Male, Kōyasan Shinnōin Temple, 高野山親王院. <Photo Source>
  5. Ugajin, Female, Kōyasan Shinnōin Temple, 高野山親王院. <Photo Source>
  6. Uga Benzaiten with white snake and Shinto gate in headdress.
    By Utagawa Kunisada 歌川豊国 (1786 - 1865), wood block print, 1860.
  7. Ugajin (old man) & Shinto gate. Modern artwork. Availabe online. <Photo Source>
  8. Uga Benzaiten, Kohonji Temple 孝恩寺, Jōdo 浄土 Sect, Osaka. Wood, H = 117.6 cm. Late Heian era. <Photo>
  9. Uga Benzaiten, Chikubushima 竹生島, Shiga Pref. 滋賀県. Wood, dated to 1565. <Photo John Dougill>
  10. Uga Benzaiten, Wood, Meiji Era. Found inside store near Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, Kamakura. Photo Schumacher.

    Somewhere along the line, perhaps in the Edo period, the terripin (tortoise) was added to Benten's snake iconography. See Mystic Tortoise below for details on this iconography.

  11. Sketch of legendary tortoise that appeared before Japan's emperor in 715 AD, with the seven stars of the Big Dipper engraved on its shell. The tortoise is one of four legendary Chinese creatures guarding the four cardinal directions in heaven and on earth. In this role, it guards the north and is associated with water. It is usually depicted as a tortoise entwined by a white snake and intimately associated with the Pole Star and Big Dipper. Photo Source The Worship of Stars in Japanese Religious Practice (p. 210), story by Meri Arichi. ISSN 1368-6534. The appearance of this terrapin is recorded in the Shoku Nihongi 続日本紀 (Heian era) in book six. Enter search term "turtle" at this site.
  12. See Photo #11. Actual piece in collection of the Shōsō-in 正倉院 in Nara. Made of Serpentine rock (Jyamongan 蛇紋岩). H = 3.5 cm, L = 15 cm. Photo Source narahaku.go.jp and ameblo.jp/kamenoko-collection
  13. Ugajin ofuda 御札 (charm, talisman) at Engakuji Temple 円覚寺 in Kamakura, early 20th century. Formerly in the collection of Alice Getty. Image appears in Getty's 1940 article Uga-jin: Coiled-Serpent God with a Human Head.
  14. Lucky snake-headed Ugajin talisman atop turtle-like creature, Jō-onji Temple 城恩寺, Kankiten Hall 歓喜天堂, Higashi Matsuyama City 東松山市, Saitama Pref. 埼玉県. Sketch by Tadami Yamada. Photo Source.

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MORE ABOUT UGA BENZAITEN. Uga Benzaiten appears in numerous stories in the Keiran Shūyōshū 渓嵐拾葉集, a multi-volume document compiled in the first half of the 14th century containing many of the oral legends of the Tendai esoteric stronghold at Mt. Hiei. Another Tendai text appearing around the same time, the Bussetsu Saishō Gokoku Ūgaya Tontoku Nyōi Hōju Darani-Kyō 仏説最勝護国宇賀耶得如意宝珠陀羅尼経, describes a number of esoteric Tendai practices involving Uga Benzaiten, thereby indicating that worship of Uga Benzaiten was already substantially systematized. For more details on medieval period
Era Names & Dates:
Standard dating scheme found in both Japan and the West.
  • Ancient refers to the Asuka and Nara periods (538-794)
  • Classical refers to the Heian period (794-1185)
  • Medieval refers to the Kamakura era (1185-1333), Muromachi era (1336-1573), and Edo era (1600-1867)
  • Modern refers to everything since 1868 (Meiji, Taisho, Showa, & Heisei periods)

    NOTE: Ancient & Classical are sometimes used collectively to refer to everything through the Nara era. The Edo Period is also known as "Early Modern," while Meiji and after are the "Modern" period. The term "Premodern" refers to pre-Meiji.
documents about Uga Benzaiten, see Scriptural Basis above. The depiction of Benzaiten in these documents differs significantly from her conventional appearance. Says the Kokugakuin University Encyclopedia of Shintō: "Ugajin was also adopted by Japan's Onmyōdō (Yin-Yang) circles and by Yoshida Shintō, leading to the development of the Ugajinsai 宇賀神祭 (Ugajin Festival)." <end quote>

The Encyclopedia also states: "The Japanese kami of foodstuffs -- Uga no mitama no kami 宇迦之御魂神 (Kojiki) or Uka no Mitama no Mikoto 倉稲魂命 (Nihongi) -- is thought to refer specifically to the spirit of rice. The Kojiki describes the kami as the offspring of Susano-o, while the Nihongi states that the kami was the offspring of the two kami Izanagi and Izanami. The Engishiki's comments on the Ōtono no Hogai Norito further identify the kami with Toyōkehime 豊宇気比売神. Ukanomitama is most commonly known as the rice kami Inari. From the medieval period, the deity was linked to popular combinatory kami such as the snake-bodied Ugajin and Uga Benzaiten. Ukanomitama is enshrined at Kyoto's Fushimi Inari Taisha and other Inari shrines throughout Japan. <end quote> For more details on Benzaiten and her associations with Japan's kami of rice, food, and agricultural, see Kami of Food sidepage.

Uga Benzaiten - courtesy www.telemesse.ne.jp/daikakuji/0.html
UGA BENZAITEN, Eight-Armed
Snake & Shrine Gate Atop Head
Modern Statue, Photo this J-site

Uga Benzaiten, Modern Statue -- Iwate, Kamaishi City, DaiKannon
UGA BENZAITEN, Naked, Eight-Armed
Snake & Shrine Gate Atop Head
Modern, Kamaishi Daikannon Complex.
Kamaishi City, Iwate Prefecture
Photo from now-defunct J-source.

Says the Encyclopedia of Shintō: The kami Ugajin's name has been conjectured to derive from the Sanskrit ugaya but most sources suggest that it originated in the tutelary of foodstuffs Uga no Mitama as found in the Kojiki and Nihongi, and that it was thus originally worshiped as a grain spirit or deity of good fortune." <end quote> Roughly translated, UGAJIN 宇賀神 means "Kami of Infinite Blessings/Felicitations/Celebrations," while UKANOMITAMA 宇迦之御魂神 means "Kami of Infinite Increase/Expansion/Additions." Ugajin's name was perhaps originally spelled 宇迦神 (UKAJIN), but at some unknown time was changed to 宇賀神 (UGAJIN) to reflect the deity's luck-bringing, fortune-bringing faculties.

 


Ofuda (talisman) of Uga Benzaiten from Mudoji Temple, Mt. Hiei.
Uga Benzaiten. Ofuda 御札 (talisman).
Snake & Shrine Gate Atop Head
 Mudōji Temple 無動寺, Mt. Hiei.
Inscription reads 比叡山無動寺
(lit. = Hiei-zan Mudōji). Shown holding
wish-granting jewel, bow, iron wheel,
trident, pestle, key, arrow, & sword.
Found among the papers of Tendai
monk Nakayama Genyū 中山玄雄
(1902-1977). Photo this J-site.

Founded in 865 by Tendai monk Sō-ō 相応 (831–918), this temple is dedicated to Fudō Myō-ō and other deities. It possesses a late 14th or early 15th century painting depicting Benzaiten with three snake heads, and attended by Suiten, Katen, Kichijōten, Kariteimo, and three princes (two above, one below), along with wish-granting jewels atop three Shugendō-related mountains (Misen, Kinpusen, Ōmine). This painting, not shown herein, is closely retaled to Tenkawa Benzaiten. A photo can be seen from Ludvik on page 106, Impressions #33.

MORE ABOUT SERPENTS & WHITE SNAKES. In Japan, Benzaiten's linkage to snakes and dragons is derived in part from earlier Hindu naga lore. The Sanskrit term Naga refers to a group of serpent-like creatures described in pre-Buddhist and early Indian Buddhist texts as water spirits with human shapes wearing a crown of serpents on their heads. The dragon, moreover, is considered a member of the Naga group, and Benzaiten's main avatars in Japan are snakes and dragons. Ugajin's appearance as an old man may also suggest venerable antiquity <Ludvik>, which would lead us back to the Naga.

Although ancient Japan probably worshipped snakes independent of outside influences (as did most world cultures), the influx of Korean and Chinese immigrants to Japan between the 2nd and 5th centuries CE no doubt introduced the Japanese to snake lore from continental Asia. But it is impossible to unequivocally say Japan's snake lore was derived entirely from the mainland. In the myths of the Kojiki 古事記 and Nihon Shoki (Nihongi) 日本書紀, two of Japan's earliest official records from the 8th century, the rice kami (rice spirit, rice soul, kami dwelling inside rice) is identified as Ukanomitama 宇迦之御魂神, who was merged later on with Ugajin, the white-snake kami of foodstuffs and wealth considered Benzaiten's companion and manifestation.

Elsewhere, in the Hitachi no Kuni Fudoki 常陸国風土記 (early 8th century document), the Yato no Kami 夜刀の神 were described as fearsome and meddlesome snake kami who lived in the fields near government offices. <Also see Kayanohime 鹿屋野比売, the kami of fields and grasses>. These nature deities tried to impede farming and the expansion of the Japanese nation, and went unworshipped initially, but later they were enshrined as a means to end their meddling. Also, the Kojiki describes snake kami of the field as female. In countless Japanese tales, Benzaiten assumes the form of a snake or a dragon to assist her followers. Snakes also figure prominently in the myths surrounding Miwa Jinja Shrine 三輪神社 in Nara (also known as Ōmiwa Jinja 大神神社), one of Japan's oldest Shintō shrines. A sacred white snake is said to reside in and around Mt. Miwa. The mountain's protective deity is Miwa Daimyōjin 三輪大明神 (aka kami Ōmononushi-no-mikoto 大物主尊, aka Ōkuninushi 大国主神). Ōmononushi's true form, as described in the Ninhogi, is a snake. In later centuries, the deities of Mt. Miwa were identified with Daikokuten. The latter is a Hindu deity who was initially a fierce god of war depicted with white snakes curled around his wrists, but later adopted into Japan's Buddhist pantheon as the god of agriculture and good fortune. Not surprisingly, Daikokuten is closely linked to Benzaiten and her white snake. For more on snakes and the color white, see Animal Associations.

<SOURCES>  Evolution of the Concept of Kami, the Encyclopedia of Shinto, and the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism (login = guest).


Pictorial votive tablets known as EMA that, in this case, are dedicated to White Snakes

Pictorial votive tablets known as EMA that, in this case, are dedicated to White Snakes

PICTORIAL VOTIVE TABLETS. Known as EMA 絵馬 in Japan, such tablets can be purchased at most shrines
(less so at temples). You write your name and petition on the back, and then hang it inside the shrine compound.

MODERN. Votive tablet at Karikayadō 刈萱堂. Near Zenkōji Temple 善光寺, Nagano City. The above tablet shows a white snake (with gold in its mouth) curled around Daikokuten's magic mallet (uchide nokozuchi 打ち出の小槌). This mallet is said to miraculously produce anything desired when struck. Some Japanese say that coins fall out when Daikokuten shakes it. The tablet's theme is prosperity -- the white snake & golden mallet represent the treasures of rice and agriculture, hence wealth. Photo this J-site.

MODERN. Votive tablet at Murayama Sengen Jinja 村山浅間神社 (Shizuoka). The above tablet shows a white snake (with a coin in its mouth) surrounded by the sacred wish-granting jewel. The wish-granting jewel is said to miraculously produce anything desired for devout followers. Thus, the theme of this tablet is wealth and the granting of wishes. The red characters are pronounced Kaiun 開運, which mean "Open to Luck, Fortune, and Prosperity." Photo this J-site.

Dragons and the "Inviting Rain" Mandala. Mid-to-late 12th century.
 Shōugyō Mandara 請雨経曼荼羅
"Inviting Rain" Mandala, Mid-to-Late 12th century
Hanging scroll, ink on paper, H = 151.1 cm, W = 65.4 cm.
As per the description in Daiunrinshōugyō 大雲輪請雨経.
Photo Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York).

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PHOTO AT LEFT. Says the NY Met: "This unusual mandala, a sketch from a compendium of esoteric Buddhist images, set in the watery world of dragon kings, was used in rites to end drought. Interestingly, there are no known polychrome or highly finished versions of this type of mandala, though they are recorded as having been used in sutra-reading services performed by monks from the Tōji and Daigoji temples in Kyoto as early as the ninth century. Perhaps these diagrams were made each time an extraordinary plea for rain was required. The transcendent repose of the bodhisattva Monju (Sanskrit: Manjushri), seated on a garuda bird and cloud at the center, is particularly striking amid the serpents and swirls of water that surround him. The text from which this visualization is drawn is known in Japanese as the Daiunrinshōugyō 大雲輪請雨経." For more on the Shōugyō Mandara 請雨経曼荼羅, see JAANUS. Also see its dragon page. Benzaiten does not appear in this mandala, but she is associated with all its symbolism -- rain bringing, dragons, snake-bodied and snake-headed deities, and Monju (she is his consort according to Alice Getty). Also, if we recall, Myō-on Bosatsu (considered Benzaiten's counterpart in Japan) appears in the Monju-in Court 文殊院 (near the East Gate). Benzaiten's connection to garuda is obscure, but the bird-man garuda of Hindu lore is  the mortal enemy of serpents & dragons. This drawing suggests the pacification of garuda by Buddhist forces. Another intriguing set of links include Garuda →  mount of Vishnu → Kichijōten (wife of Vishnu) → Benten (often confused with Kichijōten). More study is required to determine the relationship (if any) between such art & Benten.

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Tenkawa Benzaiten 天川弁才天 or 天河弁才天
Multi-Armed Esoteric Form with Three Serpent-Dragon Heads
Associated with Various Hindu / Buddhist / Shinto Deities

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Tenkawa Benzaiten, CLOSEUP
Tenkawa Benzaiten with three
serpent (or dragon) heads. 15th C.

Tenkawa Benzaiten, Kofukuji Temple (Nara)
Kubo Benzaiten 窪弁才天
A form of Tenkawa Benzaiten.
Kōfukuji 興福寺 Temple, Nara
Early 17th Century
See photo 4 (caption 4)
below for full details.

The worship of snake-related Uga Benzaiten was substantially systematized by the early 14th century. The Keiran Shūyōshū 渓嵐拾葉集, a Japanese text compiled around 1318 AD, contains many of the oral legends of these times. Click here for one curious story about Tenkawa

REFERENCE:

Chaudhuri, Saroj Kumar. Hindu Gods and Goddesses in Japan. Vedams, 2003, p. 44, ISBN : 81-7936-009-1.

"Long ago, this place [Amanogawa, aka Tenkawa] was a big sea. Two dragons, one good and another bad, lived here. The bad dragon troubled people living in the neighbourhood. Two gods took pity on the people and decided to subdue the bad dragon. The [bad] dragon appeared and started emitting his poisonous breath. One of the gods took out an eight-eyed arrow and shot it into the throat of the dragon. The subdued bad dragon sank into the sea. Next, it enveloped its body in water and rose into the sky. This water became the present Amanogawa River. The good dragon, in this case, is the goddess Sarasvati. The two gods who subdued the bad dragon are her children. This is the most important Sarasvati shrine in Japan. Regarding Sarasvati of Chikubushima, it says that she is the second daughter of [Dragon] King Sagara. The Ke-gon-gyo Sutra [Sutra of Golden Light] says that there is a small country in the north-east, where there is a lake with an island in it. This island is the residence of Sarasvati. It is her holy site."
. At some point in the 15th and 16th centuries, Benzaiten was conceived purely as a human-bodied snake-headed deity at Tenkawa Jinja 天河神社 in Nara Prefecture. This shrine, even today, is a cultic center of Benzaiten worship and a sacred site and practice location for devotees of Shugendō -- a syncretic sect that combines Taoist magic, Shintō beliefs, ascetic training, and Estoteric Buddhist doctrines. Shrine authorities say Tenkawa Jinja traces its origins back to antiquity, to the hagiographies of Emperor Jimmu (Japan's mythical first emperor), to Shugendō founder En no Gyōja (late 7th century), and to Shingon founder Kūkai (774-835; aka Kōbō Daishi). Geographically situated inside a triangle consisting of Japan's three most sacred mountain centers of "divine energy" -- Kōya 高野, Yoshino 吉野, and Kumano 熊野 -- Tenkawa Jinja venerates a fantastic esoteric form of Uga Benzaiten, one portrayed in paintings with three snake (or dragon) heads and ten arms, accompanied by Dakiniten (Hindu goddess), Inari (Japanese rice god), 15 disciples, and other deities, numerous wish-granting jewels, white foxes, and snakes. This iconography is unique to Japan, and not found anywhere in mainland Asia. Unlike the popular eight-armed Uga Benzaiten and iconic two-armed biwa-playing Benzaiten, the snake-headed Tenkawa Benzaiten failed to achieve widespread geographical reach. Whether or not the three-headed snake derives in part from earlier Hindu lore is unclear, but in the ancient collection of Vedic hymns from India known as the Rig Veda (6.61.7), Sarasvatī is mentioned as killing a three-headed snake named Vritra (this episode appears nowhere else in Hindu texts).

Tenkawa Jinja is also known as Tenkawa Daibenzaitensha 天河大弁財天社 (Grand Benzaiten Shrine of Tenkawa) and is considered one of Benzaiten's main sanctuaries in Japan. Tenkawa 天川 is sometimes read Amanogawa (lit. Heavenly River, Milky Way), and the shrine itself is located near the scenic Ten-no-kawa 天の川 mountain stream. Since the celestial maiden Benzaiten is a river goddess, her association with the shrine is most appropriate. The Tenkawa Mandala 天川曼荼羅 -- also known as the Tenkawa Benzaiten Mandala 天川弁財天曼荼羅, or 10-Armed Ugajin Mandala 十臂宇賀神曼荼羅, or Mystical Tenkawa Benzaiten Mandala 天河秘密弁財天曼荼羅 -- is used to invoke Benzaiten's aid for bountiful harvests and good fortune. Other artwork sharing affinities with the Tenkawa Mandala are the 8-Armed Uga Benzaiten Mandala and paintings of the Three Devas (representing Dakiniten, Benzaiten, and Shōten). According to one of many Shugendō legends that surfaced in the Kamakura period (13th century), Tenkawa Benzaiten first appeared to sect founder En no Gyōja sometime in the late 7th century. Writes Kadoya Atsushi at Kokugakuin University: "While En was meditating at Mt. Yūjutsu, the deity Benzaiten appeared on the seventh day, becoming known as the Tenkawa Benzaiten; on the 14th day a Jizō Bodhisattva appeared, and this became known as the Shōgun Jizō (Battle Field Jizō) of Kawakami. Finally, on the 21st day Zaō Gongen appeared as the fierce deity Kōjin." 

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Tenkawa
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Tenkawa
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Uga Benzaiten
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Kubo Benzaiten
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Tenkawa Benzaiten
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  1. Tenkawa Mandala 天川弁才天曼荼羅, Hase Dera Nōman-in 長谷寺 能満院, Sakurai City 桜井市, Nara Pref., 1546 CE. Color on Silk, H 99.4 cm  W 39.4 cm. Attributed to Takuma Hōgen 詫間法眼. Records suggest that a similar painting (no longer extant) was made in 1487. See detailed description below.
  2. Tenkawa Mandala 天川弁才天曼荼羅, Hase Dera Nōman-in 長谷寺 能満院, Sakurai City 桜井市, Nara Pref. See full details below. Muromachi era. Photo from this J-site. Now preserved at Osaka Museum.
  3. Uga Benzaiten Mandala 天川弁才天曼荼羅 ・天河曼荼羅図. 15th-16th century. Surrounded by the black-colored Daikokuten holding his magic mallet and bag, by Bishamonten holding his pagoda of treasure, and by 15 disciples. Above the 8-armed deity are two astral bodies floating on clouds (probably the sun and moon), and two flying white foxes (probably representing Inari and Dakini) dashing toward the central icon. Ugajin and Shinto shrine gate atop the central deity's head. Photo from this J-site. Also see this J-page under 天河と能楽.
  4. 8-Armed Uga Benzaiten & 15 sons holding wish-granting jewels, Kōfukuji 興福寺 Temple, Nara, H 38.5 cm, Wood, Yosegi-zukuri, Crystal Eyes, Early Edo Period, 17th century. Also known as Kubo Benzaiten 窪弁才天. Temple legend claims that Kōbō Daishi 弘法大師 (774 - 835 CE) invited-invoked the Tenkawa Benzaiten to also reside at Kōfukuji. These statues are located inside a three-storied pagoda (itself a national treasure) on the grounds at Kōfukuji. They are shown to the public only one day per year, usually on the 7th day of the 7th month. <Source: Kōfukuji placard plus this J-site. Also see this J-site.
  5. Tenkawa Benzaiten & 15 sons 天川弁財天 和州芳野山. Also known as Dainichirin Benzaiten 大日輪弁財天. Painted wood. Date unknown (perhaps 16th century). Treasure of Tenkawa Shrine. These carvings are shown to the public only once every 60 years. Photo from this J-site. Also see this J-page under 天河と能楽 and this J-site.

Tenkawa Benzaiten Mandala

Tenkawa Benzaiten Mandala - Closeup

Tenkawa Mandala, Hase Dera, Noman-in, Sakurai City, Nara Prefecture

Tenkawa Benzaiten Mandala 天川弁才天曼荼羅, Dated 1546
Source: Treasures of Nara Prefecture  |  Large Photo  |  J-Description

Tenkawa Benzaiten, Muromachi Era
Photo Source | Text Description

DESCRIPTION OF ABOVE TENKAWA MANDALAS. Treasures of Hase Dera Nōman-in 長谷寺 能満院, a Shingon temple in Sakurai City 桜井市, Nara Pref. At the top of both mandala are three sacred gems (hōju 宝珠) with flame nimbus (kaenkō 火焔光) shown atop three mountains. These mountains perhaps represent the three sacred peaks of Mt. Misen 弥山 (mountain behind Tenkawa Shrine), Mt. Ōmine 大峰山 (Kumano side), and Mt. Kinpusen 金峯山 (Yoshino side) -- the three surround Tenkawa Shrine and form a triangle. At the center of the mandala is a 10-armed Benzaiten shown in human form but with three serpent (or dragon) heads. She stands on the outstretched palms of Katen 火天 (Goddess of Fire) and Suiten 水天 (Goddess of Water) -- who perhaps represent yin (water) and yang (fire). To her left and right are the goddesses Kichijōten 吉祥天 and Kariteimo 訶梨帝母, who are portrayed as Flying Apsara with rice offerings in their hands. Above her are two snake-headed guardians. Around her are the Jūroku Dōji 十六童子 (Sixteen Sons or Disciples), all holding various symbolic objects or riding a bull, deer, jackal, white snake, stork, or horse. The centipede (mukade, hyakusoku 百足) also appears. This creature is attributed with sniffing out gold mines in mountain deposits, and as such, is considered the messenger of Bishamonten (the lord of treasure and wealth in Japan; one of the Seven Lucky Gods; a deity who appears often in artwork with Benzaiten, as in Photo 3 above, and in statues of Sanmen Daikokuten). Strewn everywhere throughout the painting are images of white snakes and foxes, as well as the Hōju 宝珠 (wish-granting jewel), which represent the power to expel evil, cleanse corruption, remove suffering, and grant every mundane wish. In some esoteric traditions in Japan, this sacred jewel is said to have emerged from the head of the dragon king (Ryū-ō 竜王; dragons are a type of serpent). The snake-headed Benzaiten represents the syncretic Shinto-Buddhist deity known as Uga Benzaiten. Although their identity is unclear, the half-naked male-female pairs (there are two pairs) in the painting probably symbolize the merging of Inari 稲荷 (the Japanese kami of rice; his messenger is the white fox) with the esoteric deity known as Dakiniten 荼吉尼天 (a Hindu goddess adopted into the Buddhist pantheon; her messenger is a white fox). Dakiniten, in fact, is often considered identical to Benzaiten. The male figure in both pairs sports bird-like legs, while the female sports fox legs and fox tails. Their identities remain a mystery, but there are indications to suggest their references. For example, in India, Sarasvatī's mount/vehicle (Skt. = Vāhana) is the haṃsa, a fowl resembling a goose or swan. This might help to explain the bird legs of the male figure. Another similar piece is kept at Ishiyama-dera 石山寺, a Shingon temple in Otsu City (Shiga Pref.). Such syncretic pieces are relatively rare in Japan. Records suggest that such pieces began appearing sometime in the late 15th century. The Nezu Museum (Tokyo) has a Muromachi-era Tenkawa Benzaiten Mandala, as does Shinnō-in 親王院 at Mt. Kōya.

MORE DETAILS ABOUT TENKAWA MANDALA, PLUS SPECULATION

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    Scarf, Modern Reproduction of the Tenkawa Benzaiten Mandala, from Marca-scarf.jp.
    Scarf, Modern Reproduction of
    the Tenkawa Benzaiten Mandala,
    from Marca-scarf.jp.
    Photo this J-site.

    Bernard Faure, a noted scholar of Japanese Buddhism, says the two mandala above form a set. "They differ by their color. In the second one, the dominant color (and in particular the color of Benzaiten's dress and of the three snake/dragon heads) is green, whereas in the first one (above), brown tones are more important. This set could be related to specific spring and autumn rituals." Faure also says: "At the top of the picture, the three mountains in the distance, themselves crowned by large cintamanis [wish-granting jewels], probably represent the three peaks of Yoshino, with Misen (abbreviation of Shumisen, that is, the cosmic Mount Sumeru), the mountain behind Tenkawa Shrine, at the center; Kinpusen on the Yoshino side, and Ōmine on the Kumano side." See page 175 of The Benzaiten and Dakiniten Mandalas: A Problem or an Enigma? Delivered at a three-day symposium entitled "Images and Objects in Japanese Buddhist Practice" at the Columbia Center for Japanese Religion, New York. Held on Oct. 7, 8, and 9, 2010. Faure also points out affinities between the Tenakwa Benzaiten Mandala and another type of representation known as the Three Devas.

  • Says Saroj Kumar Chaudhuri in his Hindu Gods and Goddesses in Japan (p.48): "The Keiran Shūyōshū (Tendai esoteric commentary dated first half 14th century) mentions a shrine dedicated to Sarasvatī (Benzaiten) in Amanogawa (aka Tenkawa Shrine) in Wakayama Prefecture near Osaka. It gives the following account of Amanogawa Sarasvatī. "Long ago, this place was a big sea. Two dragons, one good and another bad, lived here. The bad dragon troubled people living in the neighborhood. Two gods took pity on the people and decided to subdue the bad dragon. The dragon appeared and started emitting his poisonous breath. One of the gods took out an eight-eyed arrow and shot it into the throat of the dragon. The subdued bad dragon sank into the sea. Next, it enveloped its body in water and rose into the sky. This water became the present Amanogawa River. The good dragon, in this case, is the goddess Sarasvatī. The two gods who subdued the bad dragon are her children." <end quote>

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    Rokuji Myo-o from the 12th-century Besson Zakki
    Rokuji Myō-ō 六字明王
    From 12th-century Besson Zakki

    SPECULATION. The above artwork of Uga Benzaiten (photo #3) shares certain lexicographical similarities with the image of Rokuji Myō-ō 六字明王 (literally "Six-Syllable Luminescent King") that appeared in the 12th-century Japanese text Besson Zakki 別尊雑記 (Miscellaneous Record of Classified Sacred Images). See image at right. Rokuji 六字 refers to a powerful six-syllable incantation to ward off evil spirits, enemies, and malicious influences used in esoteric Shingon rituals known as Chōbuku Shinpō 調伏信法 or Chōbuku-hō 調伏法.

    This may or may not shed light on the strange iconography of Uga Benzaiten or Tenkawa Benzaiten. The iconographic similarities include:

    • eight-armed deity holding weapons
    • sun disc and moon disc shown in image
    • serpent or dragon atop head
    • appearance of numerous foxes
    • appearance of numerous different animals

 

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Benzaiten's Hindu, Buddhist, & Kami Associations
DAKINITEN 荼吉尼天 ・ 叱枳尼天 AND BENZAITEN
Plus Inari, Kankiten, Daikokuten, and Bishamonten
Benzaiten → Durgā → Kālī → Mahākāla → Dakini → Jackal/Fox → Inari → Ugajin (snake) → Uga Benzaiten

 

 

Dakini holding sword & wish-granting jewel while sitting atop fox
Dakini atop fox holding sword
and wish-granting jewel. These are
her common attributes in Japan.
Photo: 17th century (1690)
Butsuzō-zu-i 仏像図彙.

Without the fox, Dakiniten appears exactly like
Daibenzaiten -- the two are, in fact, considered identical, or, more accurately, Dakiniten is one of Benzaiten's many manifestations. The fox provides the clue to differentiating the two deities.

Sanskrit Seed for Dakini = Kirikaku
Alternative Sanskrit Seed
Pronounced KIRIKAKU in Japan

Esoteric Mantra
おん だきに ぎゃちぎゃかねい そわか
おん きりかく そわか
On Dakini Gyachigyakanei Sowaka
On Kirikaku Sowaka
<Source: Tobifudo>

Naumaku Samandabodanan Kirika Sowaka
ナウマク サマンダボダナン キリカ ソワカ
Shingon mantra said to bring luck and business success to those who chant it.

At Toyokawa Inari Temple (Aichi),
the esoteric mantra is given as:
On Shira Batta Niri Un Sowaka.
<Source: Chaudhuri, p. 161>

Eight (8) Armed Dakini, a manifestation of Happi Benzaiten
Eight-Armed Dakini (manifestation of 8-Armed Benzaiten). Painting on Wood.
Kakusei-in Temple 覚性院, Ashikaga City, Tochigi. Date Unknown. Photo this J-Site.

 

 

 

Benzaiten in Japan is associated with and conflated with numerous Hindu, Buddhist, and Shintō deities. Among the most curious and complex links is "Benzaiten Equals Dakiniten" -- this link is an altogether independent strain of Benzaiten faith in which Dakiniten (Hindu/Buddhist) is also combined with Inari (Japan's kami of rice) and associated with a white fox. In Japanese artwork, she is nearly always shown atop a fox holding a sword and wish-granting jewel. In Hindu mythology, the Dakini 荼吉尼 (Skt. = Ḍākinī) are a class of demonic female demons who drink blood and eat human flesh (especially livers). Scholars consider them acolytes of the Hindu goddess Kālī (the black one, death, consort of Śiva/Shiva), and the scene of worship in Hindu legends is usually a cremation ground or grave mound. Let us recall that scholar Catherine Ludvik
References: Works by Catherine Ludvik

From Sarasvati to Benzaiten (India, China, Japan). Ph.D. dissertation. University of Toronto, January 2001. South and East Asian Religions. Winner of the Governor General's Gold Medal 2001.

Also see Sarasvati Riverine Goddess of Knowledge: From the Manuscript-Carrying Vina-player to the Weapon-Wielding. 2007. 374 pages. Drawing on Sanskrit and Chinese textual sources, as well as Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist art historical representations, this book traces the conceptual and iconographic development of the goddess of knowledge Sarasvati from some time after 1750 B.C.E. to the seventh century C.E. Through the study of Chinese translations of no longer extant Sanskrit versions of the Buddhist 'Sutra of Golden Light' the author sheds light on Sarasvati's interactions with other Indian goddess cults and their impact on one another.

Also see La Benzaiten a huit bras: Durga deesse guerriere sous l'apparence de Sarasvati," Cahiers d'Extreme-Asie, no. 11 (1999-2000), pp. 292-338.

Also see Metamorphoses of a Goddess. Kyoto Journal KJ #62, 2006
says the eight-armed martial Benzaiten was derived in large part from the Indian battle goddess Durgā 突迦 (Chn. = Tújiā, Jp. = Toga). Durgā is another name for Kālī, the wife of Śiva. She is typically depicted in India with one face and eight arms, or three faces and six arms, a necklace of skulls, and other attributes. Kālī is the feminine form of Mahākāla (Jp. = Daikokuten). Mahākāla is the subduer of the Dakini (jackal), who in turn (in Japan) corresponds to Inari (fox), who in turn is considered the popular aspect of rice kami Uganomitama, who in turn is equated with the snake kami Ugajin and the combinatory deity Uga Benzaiten. In another configuration, 11th-century esoteric Buddhist rituals identified Dakiniten with the jewel-holding Nyoirin Kannon. Later, in the 14th century, Dakiniten became the central deity in the Shingon ceremony (administered by Ono monks) for imperial ordination, in which Nyoirin was revealed to be a form of both Dakiniten and the kami Inari  -- the latter, in turn, was considered a transformation body of the supreme sun goddess Amaterasu. <Fremerman, p. 14>

At first, the Dakini were incorporated into Vajrayana (Esoteric, Tantric) traditions as lower-ranking evil beings associated with black magic, cursing one's enemy, and achieving ulterior motives. They were also said to have the power of flight, and to appear as beautiful enchantresses to lead people astray. In Japan, however, the Dakini group never gained a large following, except for one named Dakiniten 荼吉尼天, who appears in two different forms -- the demonic and barbarous Jitsurui type (実類 or 実利) who eat human flesh yet bestow wealth when worshipped, and the benevolent and heavenly Mandala type 曼荼羅 who eat the filth that accumulates in the human heart, purify the heart-mind, represent the true body of the Tathagata, and grant wealth and prosperity to devotees <Chaudhuri, Saroj Kumar, pp. 157-158>. It is the latter benevolent type that is equated with Benzaiten & Inari in Japan.

The demi-goddess Dakiniten appears in textual sources in China by the 8th century and in Japanese records by the 9th century, but it wasn't until the Kamakura era (1185-1332) that she gained much celebrity in Japan. In the famous medieval epic Heike Monogatari 平家物語 and other texts of that period, Dakini's demonic type was invoked in various esoteric rites to gain complete mastery in human affairs, to hex one's enemies, to win favor at court, to realize political ambition, to pray for good fortune, and other mundane matters. But, around the same time, she was also appropriated by Japan's kami cults, mountain cults, and esoteric Buddhist sects as a benevolent goddess and identified with both Benzaiten and Inari (Japan's kami of rice, depicted mostly as male but sometimes female, whose messengers are white foxes). Two plausible reasons for the fusion with Inari involve (1) earlier Hindu myths in which Dakini (companions of goddess Kālī) are described as appearing in graveyards and cremation grounds alongside a jackal (considered a scavenger); since there are no jackals in Japan, the Japanese replaced the jackal with the fox (the closest approximate); (2) Inari's messenger is a divine fox, but foxes come in two varieties in Japan --  the demonic type and divine type; as mentioned earlier, Dakini herself can be either barbarous or benevolent. Another probable reason for Dakini's linkage with Inari involves the shape-shifting powers of the fox -- in both China and Japan, the evil fox (as opposed to Inari's divine fox) can shape-shift into human form, usually that of a bewitching enchantress. In Tantric lore, the Dakini are represented as beautiful young women who lead men astray. This overlapping iconography is very compelling. Since Inari is the kami of agriculture, and hence prosperity, Dakini probably derives her benevolent character via her linkage with Inari. In her new role as a goddess of prosperity, Dakini was then linked up with Benzaiten, who had by this time been merged with the snake kami of water/food/wealth known as Ugajin. Dakini's wish-granting jewel also linked her (by the 11-century) to Nyoirin Kannon.

Dakiniten is likewise related to Daikokuten (Skt. = Mahākāla; deity of five grains and agriculture; one of Japan's Seven Lucky Gods; the lord of the grave mound in Hindu mythology; depicted in Hindu art with white snakes around his wrists). In the 8th-century CE text Dainichikyōsho 大日経疏, Dainichi Buddha appears as Daikokuten in order to subdue Dakiniten. Daikokuten, moreover, from the medieval period
Era Names & Dates:
Standard dating scheme found in both Japan and the West.
  • Ancient refers to the Asuka and Nara periods (538-794)
  • Classical refers to the Heian period (794-1185)
  • Medieval refers to the Kamakura era (1185-1333), Muromachi era (1336-1573), and Edo era (1600-1867)
  • Modern refers to everything since 1868 (Meiji, Taisho, Showa, & Heisei periods)

    NOTE: Ancient & Classical are sometimes used collectively to refer to everything through the Nara era. The Edo Period is also known as "Early Modern," while Meiji and after are the "Modern" period. The term "Premodern" refers to pre-Meiji.
onward, was commonly identified with Ō-kuninushi-no-Mikoto 大国主命 (lit. = Great Land Master), the mythic Japanese kami of abundance and agriculture whose name Ō-kuni 大国 can also be read "Daikoku 大黑."  Daikoku 大黑 literally means "great black deva." It is also an alternative name for Durgā. Two pivotal themes in these convoluted associations are agriculture and the  wish-granting jewel, i.e., (1) Ugajin & Benzaiten; (2) Inari & Dakini & Foxes; and (3) Daikokuten & Dakini & Benzaiten

Dakiniten appears often in Benzaiten artwork, including the Tenkawa Benzaiten Mandala (which also includes Inari, Daikokuten, white foxes, and others). Elsewhere, in the Dakiniten Mandala, she appears as a three-headed deity with Benzaiten on the left and the elephant-headed Hindu-Buddhist deity Kankiten 歓喜天 (aka Shōten 聖天; Skt. = Gaṇeśa) on the right (although the arrangement of the heads may vary). Dakiniten is customarily depicted in Japan as a benevolent goddess riding a white fox and holding a sword and wish-granting jewel. If the fox were removed, she would look exactly like goddess Daibenzaiten, who also carries a sword and sacred jewel. Dakiniten appears in other forms as well, including an eight-armed martial deity similar to Happi Benzaiten, a five-headed multi-arm benevolent goddess, and a crow-like Tengu goblin. But in all, she is depicted atop a fox, which is often the only clue to differentiate her from Benzaiten. Another plausible reason for the Dakinten-Benzaiten linkage involves "confusion" in the convoluted esoteric practices of Japan's medieval Buddha-Kami temple-shrine multiplexes <Source Minobe Shigekatsu, p. 222>. As already noted, Benzaiten was linked early on with an obscure local deity named Ugajin (a white serpent-bodied kami of foodstuffs and wealth). Inari is another local kami of rice and foodstuffs, whose messenger is a white fox. Once Inari was linked-up with Dakini, the shared elements between the three (Ugajin, Inari, and Dakiniten) became food, the color white, and wealth. When/why Dakiniten (and her white fox) was equated with Benzaiten (and her white snake) is still unclear, but the close association of these creatures with the food crop (and thus abundance and wealth) is perhaps the most plausible explanation. [NOTES: Dakini are also servants of Yama (lord of the underworld), and Benzaiten is Yama's sister. Hindu deities Mahākāla/Durgā/Kālī all share overlapping iconography that relates to Benzaiten. Japanese scholar Minobe Shigekatsu 美濃部 重克氏, in his 1982 article The World View of Genpei Jōsuiki, says: "Benzaiten, at some unknown period of time, came to be thought identical to Dakiniten." He also says that fox-goddess Dakiniten is linked, among other things, to Benzaiten belief at Itsukushima Shrine (Hiroshima), at Chikubushima Shrine (Shiga), and at Enoshima Shrine (Kanagawa). These three shrines remain the strongholds of Benzaiten worship in both olden and modern times.

Aichi Prefecture, Found on Web, No reference provided
Dakiniten & white fox
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dakini-mandala-full-view-SS-TN
Dakiniten & white fox
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Dakiniten & white fox
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Dakiniten & white fox
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  1. Dakiniten atop white fox. Toyokawa Dakiniten Shinten 豊川叱枳尼真天, Myōgonji Temple 妙厳寺 (aka Toyokawa Inari 豊川稲荷) in Toyokawa City, Aichi Pref. Also known as 三州豊川 or 三州本山豊川稲荷. Photo source. No date / size given. This temple-shrine worships both Dakini & Inari.
  2. Dakiniten Mandala 荼枳尼天曼荼羅. Color on silk. Dimensions = 94.5 cm x 44.0 cm. Edo Period. Four-armed Dakini holding sword, wish-granting jewel, wheel of Dharama, and treasure stick. Used for all manner of benefits, including fecundity, cursing one's enemies, wealth, power, and others mundane concerns. Photo Source.
  3. Closeup of Photo Two. Fox with wish-granting  jewel in mouth and atop tail.
  4. Dakiniten atop white fox. Nambokucho Era (1333–92 AD). Hanging scroll; ink, color, gold on hemp. 29 1/2 x 13 in. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York). Says Barbara B. Ford at the NY Met: "Riding a white fox on a cloud held aloft by a pair of dragons, she clenches a vajra (thunderbolt) surmounted by a sword, a symbol of Buddhist power. In her palm she cradles a triad of sacred jewels, and others are scattered around her as abundant blessings. In her crown are auspicious protectors of the harvest: diminutive foxes on coiled white snakes, like those that encircle her wrists. Above, another triad of sacred jewels rests on an open lotus, flanked by Chinese symbols of the complementary forces of sun and moon. Originally a blood-sucking man-eating demoness, Dakiniten was converted by Vairocana (Dainichi) Buddha into a powerful life-engendering deity. In the complex interaction of Buddhism, Shinto, and Taoist yin-yang practices in medieval Japan, this icon embodied near-magical powers of fecundity that were invoked not only in enthronement rituals but also in personal contexts. The mantra identified with this deity was chanted to achieve control over the mind. Medieval tales recount invocations of Dakiniten by both men and women to win position and favor at court, as well as in matters of the heart." <end quote>

 

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Textual Resources Linking Dakiniten, Benzaiten, & Daikokuten

 

 

Dakini Mandala with two Tengu manifestation below
Dakini atop white fox.
Attended by two Tengu-like creatures.
Considered among the first such
paintings in the Muromachi era.
Taho Collection 田万コレクション.
Osaka Municipal Museum. Photo Source.

Dakini atop white fox, modern drawing
Modern painting. Fox with wish-granting
jewel in mouth & atop tail. Photo source.

 

 

 

Dakiniten appears in a Chinese text of the late 8th century called the Issai-kyō-ongi 一切経音義 by Erin 恵琳 (a monk from Kashgar) and in a Japanese commentary of the 9th century entitled Ichi-ji-chō-rin-ō-kyō 一字頂輪王經, but it wasn't until the Kamakura era (1185-1332) that she gained much celebrity in Japan, when she appeared in the famous medieval epic Heike Monogatari 平家物語 and other texts of that time, including the Genpei Jōsuiki 源平盛衰記 (The Rise and Fall of the Minamoto and the Taira), Sankō Genpei Jōsuiki 参考源平盛衰記, the Keiran Shūyōshū 渓嵐拾葉集 (Tendai esoteric commentary dated approx. 1318), and the Hokinaiden 簠簋内伝 (a Yin-Yang fortunetelling book among Onmyōdō 陰陽道 followers reportedly written at the end of the Kamakura period). In these works, she is nearly always related to black magic -- with powerful people such as Fujiwara no Narichika 藤原成親 (1138–1178), Taira no Kiyomori 平清盛 (1118-1181), monk Ninkai 仁海 (d. 1046; founder of the Ono branch of Shingon), and others calling on her to gain mastery in human affairs, to hex one's enemies, to win favor at court, and to realize political ambition or rank. Japanese scholar Minobe Shigekatsu in The World View of Genpei Jōsuiki presents many of these stories to support his claim that Dakiniten was ultimately converted into a benevolent deity who was eventually considered identical to Benzaiten. Indian scholar Saroj Kumar Chaudhuri in Hindu Gods and Goddesses in Japan has likewise covered these tales. Below are some highlights:
  • The Hokinaiden 簠簋内伝 (Yin-Yang or Onmyōdō 陰陽道) fortunetelling book was written sometime at the end of the Kamakura era by Abe no Harutoki. It says: "The day of the snake, according to the zodiac, is from the Shinto point of view, a good day. The reason for this is said to be that on that day the three daughters of an Indian fox king flew to Japan, where one appeared at each of the three (Benzaiten) shrines -- ltsukushima, Enoshima, & Chikubushima." <Minobe, pp. 222-223>
  • The Keiran Shūyōshū (14th century) tells the story of monk Ryōkanbō Ninshō 良観房忍性. While Ninshō was practicing religious seclusion in the dragon cave at the Enoshima Benten Shrine, three foxes appeared before him. These were buried under the residence for the chief monk of Gokurakuji Temple (in Kamakura) and two other temples, and the three temples then flourished. After his death, the monk who succeeded Ninshō at Gokurakuji decided to rebuild the residence, and had it taken down. At that time a white snake appeared on the spot. The workmen killed it. Gokurakuji was soon destroyed by fire, and this incident was suspected as its cause. The author of Keiran Shūyōshū makes his own speculation at the end of this story that Ninshō was really conducting services for Uka-gami (Ugajin) at Enoshima, and notes the fact that the fox transformed itself into a white snake is in agreement with a now unknown sutra called Ukatojimekyō 宇賀刀自女経." <Minobe, p. 222>
  • Taira no Kiyomori 平清盛 (1118-1181), whose family controlled Japan for less than two decades before being defeated by Minamoto no Yoritomo 源頼朝 (1147-1199), prayed to Itsukushima Myōjin 厳島明神 to assist him in his struggle to seize imperial authority. This deity, venerated at the Itsukushima Shrine (Hiroshima Prefecture), was said to be the daughter of the sea dragon king, and somewhere along the line belief in her became merged with belief in the Buddhist deity Benzaiten, with the two being worshiped as one. Kiyomori revived this shrine in the mid-12th century and popularized the diety. In his youth, Kiyomori also worshiped Dakiniten to insure his own personal glory, and the story of Kiyomori's worship of Dakiniten is linked, among other things, to his belief in the Itsukushima Benzaiten. The medieval epic Nagatobon Heike Monogatari 長門本平家物語 contains the following story: "When he was hunting, a fox he thought he had shot suddenly transformed itself into a beautiful woman, and said that if he would not kill it, it would see to it that Kiyomori was granted all his desires, so Kiyomori spared the fox's life. From that time onward, Kiyomori worshipped Dakiniten." Both the Genpei Jōsuiki and the Sankō Genpei Jōsuiki (dated to the medieval period
    Era Names & Dates:
    Standard dating scheme found in both Japan and the West.
    • Ancient refers to the Asuka and Nara periods (538-794)
    • Classical refers to the Heian period (794-1185)
    • Medieval refers to the Kamakura era (1185-1333), Muromachi era (1336-1573), and Edo era (1600-1867)
    • Modern refers to everything since 1868 (Meiji, Taisho, Showa, & Heisei periods)

      NOTE: Ancient & Classical are sometimes used collectively to refer to everything through the Nara era. The Edo Period is also known as "Early Modern," while Meiji and after are the "Modern" period. The term "Premodern" refers to pre-Meiji.
    ) mention the appearance of Benzaiten during a pilgrimage by Taira no Tsunemasa 平経正 (Kiyomori's nephew) to Chikubushima (another Benzaiten stronghold). The manifestation came in the form of a white fox jumping down from the altar, although other texts say it appeared as a white serpentine dragon. <Saroj, p. 155; Minobe pp. 215-216> See English translation of story in Heike Monogatari by A.L. Sadler (Google Books) and in Asiatic Society of Japan (1918). In the latter, jump to Chapter Two for story of Tsunemasa and the white dragon.
  • The Keiran Shūyōshū (early 14th century) tells the tale of Ninkai 仁海 (d. 1046), the founder of the Ono branch 小野流 of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism, who was able to leap through the promotion ladder in a single bound to achieve the rank of Sōjō 僧正 (highest rank among clergy). His secret was Dakini. While worshipping Dakiniten for 1,000 days, he was brought food offerings by the daughter of Gion no Shōnin Hōshi 祇園上人. This woman eventually became the consort of retired Emperor Shirakawa 白河天皇 (1053-1129), and Ninkai was able, through her influence, to leap straight to the top of the clerical ladder. <Minobe, p. 220>
  • Says Minobe Shigekatsu (pp. 221-222): "At some unknown point in time, Benzaiten came to be thought identical to Dakiniten. This explanation was the result of a confusion of esoteric Buddhism and Shinto in the context of services for Dakiniten and Uka-gami (aka Ugajin)."
  • King Hansoku 斑足王 in the Benevolent Kings Sutra 仁王經 (Ninnōgyō) becomes king through his worship of a deity called Tsuka-gami 塚神. He is able to do so because of a relationship between Tsuka-gami and Dakiniten. The deity Tsuka-gami is none other than Dakiniten or Daikokuten (the deities who live among the grave mounds). The theory that the god of the grave mounds was Daikokuten was transmitted to Japan, but there was also a theory that this deity was Dakiniten. Dakiniten was said to know of people's deaths six months before the event, and was said to eat the livers of those who had died. The origin of this belief stems from the Dainichikyōsho 大日経疏 (8th-century text), which says: "Dakini originally ate the livers of the living, but in order to put an end to this practice, Dainichi Nyorai transformed himself into Daikokuten and beat Dakini. When Dakini then complained that she would not have any food to keep her alive, Daikokuten taught her the art of knowing six months before a person's death that the person would die, so that she would be able to have first claim on the livers of the dead. <Minobe, pp. 223-226>

Other Dakini Resources

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Dakiniten, Tengu, and White Foxes

Tonyugyo Tengu and Suyochiso Tengu in the Dakini Mandala (Osaka)spacerSometime in the Muromachi period (1392-1568), for reasons unknown (to me), two warrior-like crow-faced TENGU goblins began appearing in Dakini artwork, the white-colored Tonyūgyō 頓遊行神 holding a spear (or other weapon) and the red-colored Suyochisō 須臾馳走神 sporting wings. These goblins appear, for example, in the Dakiniten Mandala. Their names suggest "swiftness" and thus they appear animated. <source: Faure, p. 169> The two are considered Dakini's attendants, as well as martial deities who serve Inari Daimyōjin 稲荷大明神 at Fushimi Inari Taisha 伏見稲荷大社 in Kyoto (Japan's first and oldest Inari shrine). Prior to the appearance of Tonyūgyō and Suyochisō in Dakini artwork, various Tengu cults had sprung up at numerous holy mountain sites. One well-known example is Dōryō Daigongen 道了大権現. Dōryō was a mountain ascetic before becoming a Soto Zen monk. He was eventually appointed as head cook and administrator at Daiyūzan Temple 大雄山 (Kanagawa Prefecture). After his death in 1411 CE, legend says he metamorphosed into a Tengu and became the monastery guardian. According to scholar Duncan Williams in The Other Side of Zen: A Social History of Soto Zen Buddhism in Tokugawa Japan (2005): "[Upon his death] his body was engulfed in flames as he appeared transformed and stood on a white fox to promise a life free from illness and full of riches for those who sincerely worshipped him." Other important fox-riding Tengu include Izuna Saburō Tengu 飯綱三郎天狗 at sacred Mt. Iizuna (Izuna) 飯綱山 in Nagano Prefecture, whose cult is first mentioned in the Kamakura-era text Asabashō 阿婆縛抄 (1279), and Akibasan Sanshakubō 秋葉山三尺坊 (Nagano), who is also thought to have originated in the Mt. Iizuna area. See photos below.

Dakini with Five Heads atop White Fox
5-Headed Dakini (one head is a Tengu)
aka Five-Headed Yaksha 五面夜叉
Scroll. Color on Silk. H = 82 cm, W = 31 cm.
Edo Period. Artist Unknown.
Photos this J-site.

Dakini in the Guise of a Tengu (atop white fox)
MODERN. Akibasan Sanshakubō 秋葉山三尺坊 (Nagano)
and Izuna Saburō
Tengu 飯綱三郎天狗. (Sendai)
Both depicted atop a white fox, holding sword and rope.
Both are manifestations of Dakiniten. Photos this J-site.

The deity sits atop a white fox. The central head is Dakiniten, surrounded by Benzaiten, the elephant-headed Kankiten 歓喜天 (aka Shōten 聖天), Kōjin 荒神 (the syncretic Shinto-Buddhist deity of the kitchen and cooking stove), and the syncretic deity Iizuna Saburō Tengu 飯綱三郎天狗 (see photo at right).

Says Chaudhuri (p. 157): "The Edo-era text Reijū Zatsuroku 霊獣雑録 mentions shrines dedicated to Iitsuna (Iizuna, Izuna) 飯綱. The deity at such places is the Tengu goblin. People say the evil rites of Dakini are practiced here, and the fox used for ulterior motives." For more, see Encyclopedia of Shinto & Gabi Greve.


 

izuna-gongen-1783-butsuzozui-mt-takao-H302
Izuna Gongen 飯繩権現
or Izuna Gongen 飯綱権現
Drawing in the 18th-century
Honji is Fudō Myō-ō
Butsuzō-zu-i 仏像図彙

MORE ON THE IZUNA CULT.
The Izuna cult (in Nagano prefecture) was closely connected with Dakini belief, as well as belief in Atago Gongen and Jizō Bosatsu (in his manifestation as Shōgun Jizō). Says Itō Satoshi at the Encyclopedia of Shintō, Kokugakuin University (2005): "A kind of magical technique was adopted from the medieval period
Era Names & Dates:
Standard dating scheme found in both Japan and the West.
  • Ancient refers to the Asuka and Nara periods (538-794)
  • Classical refers to the Heian period (794-1185)
  • Medieval refers to the Kamakura era (1185-1333), Muromachi era (1336-1573), and Edo era (1600-1867)
  • Modern refers to everything since 1868 (Meiji, Taisho, Showa, & Heisei periods)

    NOTE: Ancient & Classical are sometimes used collectively to refer to everything through the Nara era. The Edo Period is also known as "Early Modern," while Meiji and after are the "Modern" period. The term "Premodern" refers to pre-Meiji.
involving the use of fox mediums. This belief spread even among members of the court and warriors; the deputy shogun Hosokawa Masamoto 細川政元 (1466-1507) was known to have practiced the Izuna-Atago techniques (ref. Ashikaga Kiseiki 足利奇跡 of the 14th-15th century, Jūhen Ōninki), and the imperial regent Kujō Tanemichi 九条稙通 (1506-1594/7) is likewise said to have studied Izuna practices (ref. Matsunaga Teitoku, Taionki). These fox-related practices, known as kitsune tsukai 狐使い, later came to be called izuna tsukai 飯綱使い." <end quote> Izuna Gongen was also venerated by top military commanders such as Takeda Shingen 武田信玄 (1521–1573) and Uesugi Kenshin 上杉謙信 (1530–1578).

SPECULATION. The "food chain" may be the common connection between Dakiniten-Benzaiten and the Tengu. Let us also recall that Benzaiten's holy days occur on days, months, and years of the snake and the boar. Consider the following Zen story: "One day a hunter was in the mountains when he happened to see a snake killing a bird. Suddenly a boar appeared and began to devour the snake. The hunter thought he should kill the boar, but changed his mind because he did not want to be a link in such a chain and cause his own death by the next predator to come along. On his way home he heard a voice call to him from the top of a tree. It was the voice of a Tengu. It told him how lucky he was, for had he killed the boar, the tengu would have killed him. The man subsequently moved into a cave and never killed another animal." <Sources: A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels, and Other Subversive Spirits (by Carol Mack, Dinah Mack) and Animal Motifs in Asian Art: An Illustrated Guide to Their Meanings and Aesthetics (by Katherine M. Ball).> This tale is an adaptation of a much earlier story from Japan's Konjaku Monogatari 今昔物語, a late-11th-century collection of stories from India, China, and Japan. In one, the Chinese sage Chuang Tzu has the chance to kill a heron that is trying to catch a prawn that is trying to catch a tiny bug. Chuang thought to himself: "Neither the heron nor the prawn knows that someone is going to harm it. Each thinks only of harming another. I likewise was going to kill the heron. For all I know there might be a being superior to me who is going to harm me. I'll run away to prevent that," and he took to his heels. Read the English version in Marian Ury's Tales of Times Now Past. Sixty-Two Stories from a Medieval Japanese Collection, p. 79, or purchase here. Also see The Seven Tengu Scrolls by Wakabayashi Haruko.

 

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DAI BENZAITEN - Holding Sword & Jewel
Kichijōten (Skt. = Lakṣmī) Confusion

Daibenten 大弁天, Daibenzaiten 大弁才天, Daibenkudokuten 大弁功徳天

 

Another name for Benzaiten
She is also one of 20 Celestials


Spellings

Jp. = Daibenten 大辯天
Jp. = Daibenzaiten 大辯財天
Jp. = Daibenkudokuten 大辯功徳天
Chn. =Dàbiàn tiān
Krn. = 대변천
Krn. = Daebyeon cheon

 Art historian Alice Getty, p. 113 translated Daibenzaiten as "Great Divinity of the Reasoning Faculty," but it is more commonly translated
as "Goddess of Eloquence."

Daibenzaiten holding sword and wish-granting jewel
Daibenzaiten holding sword
and wish-granting jewel.
Snake coiled atop head.
Photo: 1783 Butsuzō-zu-i

Kichijoten holding and spreading wish-granting jewel, 1783 Butsuzo-zui
Kichijōten holding wish-granting
jewel and spreading them about.
Photo: 1783 Butsuzō-zu-i

Daibenzaiten with serpent or dragon tail, Meiji Period, 27
Daibenzaiten. Modern, with snake
tail, holding sword & jewel. By
Iwamoto Han 巌本繁, 1894. Color
on Silk, 116 x 42 cm. Source

Kichijoten holding and spreading wish-granting jewel, 1783 Butsuzo-zui
Dakiniten holding sword & jewel,
riding atop white fox.
Photo: 1783 Butsuzō-zu-i

spacerDaibenzaiten 大弁才天 (Daibenten for short) is an iconic two-armed form of Benzaiten that became popular from Japan's Kamakura era (13th century) onward. In this manifestation, she is commonly depicted with the good-fortune snake deity Ugajin atop her head, and hence may also be identified as Uga Benzaiten. Dressed in heavenly gowns, Daibenten's right hand holds a sword (riken 利劍, symbolizing wisdom, discrimination, power over evil, the slashing away of ignorance) and the left a wish-granting jewel (hōju 宝珠, a magical gem that represents the power of Buddha's teachings and brings forth whatever one desires, including treasure, food and clothing, healing of sickness or suffering, and victory on the battlefield). While the sword is one of Benzaiten's traditional attributes, the wish-granting jewel is not standard and should be viewed as a purely Japanese convention. The jewel became one of Benzaiten's defining attributes sometime in the 13th century, when she was merged with the snake-kami Ugajin. Her two-armed, sword-wielding, jewel-holding, snake-related form is described in 13th-century texts known as the Three Benten Sutras. In some traditions, the jewel was obtained from the dragon king of the sea -- and the serpentine dragon, if we recall, is one of Benzaiten's main avatars. <source DDB; sign in with user name = guest>

Edo-era scholar Amano Sadakage 天野信景 (1663-1733), in his famous work Shiojiri 塩尻, pointed out various errors in Benzaiten iconography. First, he said, Benzaiten is not the deity of fortune -- it is Kichijōten 吉祥天 (Skt. = Lakṣmī) who performs that role. Therefore it was wrong to change the spelling of Benzaiten's name from 弁才天 to 弁財天, with the character 才 (zai), meaning talent, replaced with its homonym 財 (zai), meaning wealth. Second, depictions of Benzaiten holding the wish-granting jewel are incorrect. It is Kichijōten (the Hindu-Buddhist goddess of beauty, luck, prosperity, and merit) who holds the jewel. Alas. No one was listing to Amano.

In modern Japan, Benzaiten has clearly supplanted Kichijōten (the former goddess of wealth, one of the Seven Lucky Gods in early groupings, but since dropped). Today both Benzaiten and Kichijōten are still conflated and confused in popular imagination. Both are considered celestial goddesses of fortune. Both arrived in Japan at approximately the same time -- the oldest extant images of the two (from the 8th century) are housed together at Sangatsudō 三月堂 of Tōdaiji Temple 東大寺 in Nara. Both deities were introduced to Japan via their descriptions in the Sutra of Golden Light (a scripture of great influence in old Japan for protecting the nation). Both are members of the 20 Celestials (Nijūten 二十天), a grouping that appeared in the 9th-century Nittō Shingu Shōgyō Mokuroku 入唐新求聖教目錄. In this text they are known as Daibenzaiten 大辯才天 (aka Sarasvati or Benzaiten) and Daikudokuten 大功德天 (aka Lakṣmī or Kichijōten). Both appear in Japanese artwork wearing beautiful gowns and holding a wish-granting jewel. Both were listed as members of Japan's Seven Lucky Gods in the 1783 Zōho Shoshū Butsuzō-zui 増補諸宗仏像図彙 (Enlarged Edition of the Butsuzō-zui). But, by the late Edo period (19th century), Kichijōten had disappeared from the group. Today the sole female member of the Seven Luckies is Benzaiten.

Another cause of confusion involves the deity Daibenkudokuten 大辯功徳天 (Dai Ben Ku Doku Ten), a member of the 28 legions protecting the 1000-armed Kannon, one presiding over virtue, merit, prosperity and good luck, and fulfilling the wishes of devotees. In Chinese texts and scriptures, Daibenkudokuten is an alternative Chinese spelling for Myō-on-ten (i.e. Benzaiten). <source DDB>. In Japan's famous medieval epic Heike Monogatari 平家物語, Tsunemasa (a poet and musician) visits Benzaiten's sanctuary at Chikubushima, where he kneels and declares Daibenkudokuten to be the "bringer of salvation for sentient beings.....those who worship here even once will have every wish granted." <see passage in the Tale of Heike> However, in the Butsuzō-zui and other Japanese texts, Daibenkudokuten is considered a manifestation of Kichijōten 吉祥天 (aka Lakṣmī aka Makashiri 摩訶室利). The famous 13th-century statue of Daibenkudokuten installed at Sanjūsangendō 三十三間堂 in Kyoto (see photo #6 below) is classified by the temple as Kichijōten, not Benzaiten. In Hindu myths, Lakṣmī was born from the sea and is considered the wife of Vishnu. In Japan, she is said to be the younger sister of Bishamonten (or sometimes his wife) and is considered the daughter of the dragon king and goddess Kishimojin (Skt. = Hariti). In Japanese artwork (see below), Daibenkudokuten holds a wish-granting jewel (nyoi hōju 如意寶珠) -- a magical gem that brings forth one's wishes. Since both Benzaiten and Kichijōten are associated in Japan with water, dragons, good luck, and the wish-granting jewel, the two are sometimes confused. This confusion is compounded by their linkage with Daibenkudokuten.

Adding further bewilderment is the Itsukushima Engi 厳島縁起 (aka Itsukushima Honji 厳島本地), a 13th-century Japanese text about the origins of the Benzaiten stronghold in Hiroshima called Itsukushima Jinja Shrine 厳島神社. Inexplicably, this document fails to mention Benzaiten's name even once. Instead, the story begins with the main character falling in love with a picture of Kichijōten drawn on a fan (his family heirloom). The shrine has a sanctuary dedicated to Benzaiten but nothing whatsoever for worship of Kichijōten. <see Chaudhuri, p. 38 and 47> Incidentally, Kichijōten had her own independent cult from Japan's 8th century onward, but for reasons unknown (to me), her popularity declined steadily and by the Edo period she was largely supplanted by Benzaiten. In addition, the martial deity Marishiten (also of Hindu origin) is revered in Japan as a Buddhist goddess of wealth and prosperity. She was counted along with Benzaiten and Daikokuten as one of a trio of "three deities" (Santen 三天) invoked by merchants for good fortune during the Edo period, but her place too was largely supplanted by Benzaiten. Marishiten's mount is a boar -- and, if we recall, Benzaiten's holy days are on days of the snake and the boar.

Curiously the standard sword-and-jewel iconography of Daibenzaiten is likewise a hallmark of the Hindu-Buddhist goddess Dakiniten (see photo at right). Dakiniten is customarily depicted in Japan as a benevolent deity riding a white fox and holding a sword and wish-granting jewel. If the fox were removed, she would look exactly like Daibenzaiten -- the fox, in fact, is often the only clue to differentiate the two. Furthermore, Dakiniten and Kichijōten appear often in Benzaiten artwork (e.g., Tenkawa Benzaiten). SPECULATION: Both are associated with rituals for consecrating the emperor -- Dakiniten with accession ceremonies for new emperors (Sokuishiki 即位式), and Kichijōten with the New-Year ritual Goshichinichi Mishuhō 後七日御修法. This may or may not have played a role in their linkage with Benzaiten and their frequent appearance in Benzaiten art.

Let us end this section with some salient points from Hindu Gods and Goddesses in Japan by scholar Saroj Kumar Chaudhuri (Vedams 2003; see partial book preview at Google Online Book Preview):
  • Just like Lakṣmī, Sarasvatī was also introduced to the Japanese by the Kon-kō-myō-kyō sutra [mid 8th century] It can be imaged that with more potent Lakṣmī around to bestow wealth, the promise [of Benzaiten] of bestowing scholarly attainment roused very little interest among the Japanese, who had no tradition of scholarship.....the rulers of the period were more eager to stabilize the economy, rather than promote learning. Contemporary literary works of Japan virtually ignored Sarasvatī. (p. 44)
     
  • Itsukushima Engi 厳島縁起 [13th-century Japanese text], narrating the origin of the Itsukushima Shrine [a Benzaiten stronghold in Hiroshima], fails to mention the name Sarasvatī. However, for some strange reason, it mentions Lakṣmī (p. 47)......the 1447 Gaun Nikkenroku Batsuyū 臥雲日件録 suggests the possibility of both Lakṣmī and Sarasvatī being enshrined in Itsukushima........according to one legend, a beautiful lady came to the island by boat in the reign of Empress Suiko 推古天皇 (554-628).......the lady said she had been wandering on the sea. This place was very solemn and majestic. So she would settle here. She next turned into a big snake. This serpentine form suggests that the lady may be Sarasvatī. However, in the next breath, the same entry says that, according to popular legend, the deity of Itsukushima has two husbands, one old and another new. The new husband is Vaiśravaṇa (aka Bishamonten). In Japanese works, it is Lakṣmī (not Sarasvatī) who is mentioned as the consort of Vaiśravaṇa.

Daibenzaiten, Daibenkudokuten, and Kichijōten
Below black-and-white images from the 1690 Butsuzō zui 仏像図彙 (Illustrated Compendium of Buddhist Images) and the expanded 1783 version Zōho Shoshū Butsuzō-zui 増補諸宗仏像図彙 (Enlarged Edition Encompassing Various Sects of the Illustrated Compendium of Buddhist Images).

Click to Enlarge
Daibenzaiten in the 1690 Butsuzo-zui
Daibenzaiten
大辯財天, 1690
spelling changed

Click to Enlarge
Daibenzaiten in the 1783 Butsuzo-zui
Daibenzaiten
大弁才天, 1783
spelling changed

Click to Enlarge
Daiben Kudokuten in the 1690 Butsuzo-zui
Daibenkudokuten
大弁功徳天
1690

Click to Enlarge
Daiben Kudokuten in the 1783 Butsuzo-zui
Daibenkudokuten
大弁功徳天
1783

Click to Enlarge
Kichijoten in the 1690 Butsuzo-zui
Kichijōten
吉祥天
 1690

Click to Enlarge
Kichijoten in the 1783 Butsuzo-zui
Kichijōten
吉祥天
 1783

daibenzaiten-yokohama-city
Daibenten
click to enlarge

The world's largest statue of Benzaiten, completed in year 2000 in southern Kyushu.
Daibenten
click to enlarge

daibenzaiten-Tokyo
8-Armed Daibenten
click to enlarge

13th-century-daibenzaiten
Daibenten
click to enlarge

Daibenkudokuten at Sanjusangendo in Kyoto, Kamakura Period
Daibenkudokuten / Kichijōten
click to enlarge

Kichijoten at Todaiji Temple (Nara), 8th century CE
Kichijōten
click to enlarge

kichijoten-horyuji-116.7cm-wood-sarai-oct-20-2005
Kichijōten
click to enlarge

kichijoten-1340-kofukuji-wood-busshi-kankei-#56-Japan-Natl-Treasures
Kichijōten
click to enlarge

 

  1. At Seto Jinja 瀬戸神社 (Yokohama City). Muromachi Era. Important Cultural Property of Yokohama. Left hand holds wish-granting jewel; missing right hand with sword; the snake kami Ugajin appears atop her head. Photo Source.
  2. The world's largest statue of Daibenzaiten, completed in year 2000 in southern Kyushu. Details here.
  3. Eight-armed Benzaiten holding sword, jewel, and other objects. Ugajin and shrine gate atop head. Takahatasan Myō-ō-in Temple 高幡山明王院金剛寺  in Tokyo. Painted wood. No date given. Photo Source
  4. Wood with polychromy, cut gold leaf, and inlaid crystal eyes. Kamakura Period, 13 Century, Private Collection. Photo taken at Tokyo National Museum (July 2010). Small effigy of Ugajin (god of foodstuffs) atop head.
  5. Daibenkudokuten 大弁功徳天 (another name for Benzaiten or for Kichijōten). Treasure of Sanjūsangendō 三十三間堂 in Kyoto. Wood. Height = 164 cm. Kamakura Period. National Treasure. The temple says this statue of Daibenkudokuten is not Benzaiten, but rather a manifestation of Kichijōten 吉祥天 (Skt. = Lakṣmī), a goddess often confused with Benzaiten. Yet, technically speaking, the term "Daibenkudokuten" is an alternative Chinese spelling for Benzaiten. It can be translated as "Deva of Great Virtue and Merit," and somewhere along the line the Japanese applied the term to Kichijōten. Photo scanned from Sanjūsangendō catalog.
  6. Japan's oldest Kichijōten statue. H = 202 cm. 754 CE, Sangatsudō 三月堂, Tōdaiji Temple 東大寺 in Nara. Standing clay image, badly damaged. Paired with an equally old Benzaiten statue (shown here). Photo scanned from magazine 日本の仏像 (Japan's Buddha Statues), No. 8, Aug. 2007.
  7. Kichijōten. This goddess is often mistaken for Benzaiten, as both are depicted as beauties holding a wish-granting jewel. Wood. H = 116.7 cm. Late Heian period (1078 AD). Hōryūji Temple 法隆寺 in Nara. Photo courtesy magazine Serai サライ, 20 Oct. 2005.
  8. Kichijōten. Painted wood. Kōfukuji Temple 興福寺 in Nara. Dated to 1340 and carved by Busshi Kankei 覚慶. Photo courtesy National Treasures of Japan 日本の国宝 magazine, published 22 March 1998, V.056.

Daibutsu - Big Benzaiten in Kyushu, completed in year 2000
The world's largest statue of Daibenzaiten, completed in year 2000 in southern Kyushu.
Located at Saifukuji Temple 最福寺, Kagoshima City 鹿児島市, Kyushu.
Height = 18.5 meters, Weight 15 tons, Sword 8 meters in height. Shrine Gate & Ugajin (H = 3 meters) in headdress.
Carved by
Matsumoto Myōkei 松本明慶 and his team from a 500-year-old Canadian cypress tree (Hiba, 檜葉).
During the statue's Kaigen Kuyō 開眼供養 (eye-opening ceremony), a string was attached to Benzaiten's hand which
extended out to the entrance, where visitors/worshippers could touch it to gain a karmic connection with the goddess.
Photo Sources: Saifukuji Temple (J-site) and Kouichi Yamamoto (J-site).

 

 

 

 

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Daikokuten, Benzaiten & Bishamonten
Three-Faced Sanmen Daikokuten 三面大黒天
Plus other artwork involving the trio

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sanmen-daikoku-butsuzozui-1690-TN160
3-headed, 6-armed Sanmen Daikokuten 三面大黒天
From the 1690 Butsuzō-zu-i

Jump to Kojin page (god of the hearth, the kitchen fire, and the protector of land, cattle, and horses.
Sanmen Daikoku's role is similar
to Kōjin-sama, the 3-headed
Shintō kami of the kitchen & cooking stove. In the popular mind, Daikokuten and Kōjin-sama are identical. Effigies of Daikokuten
or Sanmen Daikokuten placed
in kitchens are thus
sometimes called Kōjin.

Says JAANUS: "It appears that Daikokuten came to be a protector of the food supply because images of him were placed in monastery kitchens in India and in China. In Japan this practice is said to have been begun by Saichō on Mt. Hiei. Later Daikokuten became more closely associated with food and good forture. This tendancy was reinforced by his identification with the Shinto deity Ōkuninushi-no-Mikoto 大国主命." <end quote>

 

 

Benzaiten appears as one of three deities in the still-popular three-faced six-armed Sanmen Daikokuten 三面大黒天 esoteric form. Saichō 最澄 (767-822), the founder of Japan's esoteric Tendai sect, is traditionally credited with introducing Sanmen Daikokuten to Japan, but the deity did not appear in artwork until around the late 14th century. The three -- with Daikokuten in the center, Bishamonten to his right, and Benzaiten to his left -- stand atop bales of rice and hold various objects symbolizing protection and wealth, including the key to the granary and the wish-granting jewel. The three, all of Hindu origin, are believed to protect the three Buddhist treasures (the Buddha, the law, and the community of followers). Sanmen Daikokuten also awards followers with virtue and wealth. An alternate name for the deity is Bumon Daikoku 武門大黒 (Warriors' Daikoku 武門大黒), with Daikoku typically holding a wish-granting jewel and sword. He also comes in a wrathful form, as a war deity who conquers evil, has three faces, six arms, and is colored black. In this latter form, he wears a snake as a bracelet and a skull as a necklace. Daikokuten and Bishamonten appear frequently as members of Benzaiten's retinue in the Tenkawa Benzaiten Mandala and in paintings of Uga Benzaiten and Her 15 Disciples. It is important to note that Benzaiten appears in another group of three deva from the Shingon camp, a trio that includes Benzaiten, Dakiniten, and Shōten (Kangiten). Sanmen Daikoku was created by the Tendai school -- most probably an attempt to compete against the Shingon version.

MORE ABOUT SANMEN DAIKOKUTEN. Says the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism (login = guest): "A special form of Mahākāla, having a unique body with three faces, the center being Mahākāla (Jp. Daikokuten), the left being Vaiśravaṇ (Jp. Bishamonten), and the right being Sarasvatī (Jp. Benzaiten). This form was created in Japan, probably around the latter half of the 14th century or later, in the Tendai school. Legends say that when Saichō wanted to found the Enryakuji Temple on Mt. Hiei, he prayed for divine protection and assistance. In reply to his prayer, a divinity with three faces appeared and promised to grant his request: that was Sanmen Daikokuten. Traditionally, the protecting deity of Mt. Hiei is the deity of Mt. Miwa 三輪山, Miwa Daimyōjin 三輪大明神, who is Ōmononushi-no-mikoto 大物主尊 (cf. Hie Taisha 日吉大社 and Sannō Gongen 山王權現). [also known as Ō-Hiei Gongen, the 17th kami of the 30 Kami of the 30 Monthly Days.] There was an assimilation of Miwa Daimyōjin with Daikokuten according to the Miwa Daimyōjin Engi 三輪大明神緣起, which is dated from 1318, but based probably on a document written by Eison 叡尊 (1201-1290) in 1285. At the latest from this period onward, Daikokuten was believed as the protecting deity of Mt. Hiei. On the other hand, the idea of one deity with three faces can be traced back to the protecting yakṣa deity of the Shingon headquarters temple in Kyōto, the Tōji 東寺 (officially named Kyō-ō Gokoku-ji 教王護國寺), named Yashajin 夜叉神 or Matarajin 摩多羅神, who was constituted of Shōten 聖天 (Gaṇeśa) at the center, Ḍākinī 荼吉尼天 at the left, and Benzaiten (Sarasvatī) at the right, according to a work by Shukaku 守覺 (1150-1202). In the tradition of Tōji, this deity was connected to the Japanese deity Inari 稲荷, who was considered as the protecting deity of the whole temple. Thus, it is possible that the cult of Sanmen Daikoku was created in Mt. Hiei, on the basis and in competition with Yashajin of the Tōji. In the later medieval period
Era Names & Dates:
Standard dating scheme found in both Japan and the West.
  • Ancient refers to the Asuka and Nara periods (538-794)
  • Classical refers to the Heian period (794-1185)
  • Medieval refers to the Kamakura era (1185-1333), Muromachi era (1336-1573), and Edo era (1600-1867)
  • Modern refers to everything since 1868 (Meiji, Taisho, Showa, & Heisei periods)

    NOTE: Ancient & Classical are sometimes used collectively to refer to everything through the Nara era. The Edo Period is also known as "Early Modern," while Meiji and after are the "Modern" period. The term "Premodern" refers to pre-Meiji.
and during the Edo period, the cult of Sanmen Daikoku as a god of fortune was very popular, and there exist many little statues of this deity in wood. [Bibliography: Hōbōgirin, 7.902b-905a; 彌永信美 (Nobumi IYANAGA), 大黒天変相 — 佛教神話学 I, Kyoto, Hōzōkan 法藏館, 2002, p. 547 [Iyanaga, Nakamura]"

The competition between these two sects is also emphasized by scholar Chaudhuri Saroj (p. 158), who says: "The rivalry between the Shingon and Tendai sects may also have a hand in the association of foxes and Inari. Under the doctrine of Shinbutsu Shūgō 神仏習合 (Honji Suijaku
Honjisuijaku or Honji-suijaku Setsu :
Theory of original reality and manifest traces. A theory of Buddhist-Shinto syncretism. Originally a Buddhist term used to explain the Buddha's nature as a metaphysical being (honji) and the Historical Buddha (i.e. Sakyamuni) as a trace manifestation (suijaku). This theory was used in Japan to explain the relationship between the various Buddha and Shinto kami; the many Buddha were regarded as the honji, and the Shinto kami as their incarnations or suijaku. Theoretically, honji and suijaku are an indivisible unity and there is no question of valuing one more highly than the other; but in the early Nara period, the honji were regarded as more important than the suijaku. Gradually they both came to be regarded as one; but in the Kamakura period, Shintoists also proposed the opposite theory, that the Shinto kami were the honji and the Buddha were the suijaku. This latter theory is called han-honji-suijaku setsu or shinpon-butsuju setsu.
), the Shintō gods Ōyamakui and Ōnamuchi, the presiding deities of the famous Hiyoshi Taisha 日吉大社 (aka Hie Jinja 日吉神社; located on Mt. Hiei), became the guardian deities of Enryakuji Temple, the head temple of the Tendai Sect [on Mt. Hiei]. The monkey was considered to be the messenger of these Shintō gods. Perhaps, out of rivalry, the Shingon Sect accorded similar status to
Inari and the fox for the Tōji Temple, one of their premier temples." <end quote> 

sanmen-daikokuten-benzaiten-holding-key-Better-SS-TN
Click Photo  to Enlarge.
Sanmen Daikokuten
Daikokuten, Benzaiten, Bishamonten

sanmen-daikokuten-benzaiten-BA-SS-TN
Click Photo  to Enlarge.
Sanmen Daikokuten
Daikokuten, Benzaiten, Bishamonten

sanmen-daikokuten-1690-1783-butsuzou-zui-TN
Click Photos  to Enlarge.
Sanmen Daikokuten
From the 1690 & 1783 Butsuzō-zu-i

benzaiten-siebold-W200
Click Photo  to Enlarge.
Uga Benzaiten & Disciples
plus Daikokuten & Bishamonten.
From Philipp Franz von Siebold.

8-Armed Uga Benzaiten
Click Photo  to Enlarge.
Uga Benzaiten & Disciples
Benzaiten, Bishamonten, Daikokuten
Plus white foxes, 15 disciples, etc.

TN-benzaiten-tenkawa-mandala-2
Click Photo  to Enlarge.
Uga Benzaiten & Disciples
Benzaiten, Bishamonten, Daikokuten
Plus white foxes, 15 disciples, etc.

  1. Sanmen Daikokuten at Eishinji Temple 英信寺 in Tokyo's Taitō Ward. One of three famous effigies of the 3-headed Daikoku in the Edo period. To Daikokuten's right is Bishamonten, to the left Benzaiten (shown here holding the key to the storehouse). Photo Source.
  2. Sanmen Daikokuten inside zushi. Modern wood statue. Available online at this E-site (our sister site).
  3. Sanmen Daikokuten, with Daikokuten (center), Benzaiten (left), and Bishamonten (right). Drawings from the 1690 and 1783 Butsuzō-zu-i.
  4. Benzaiten & 15 Disciples, plus Daikokuten and Bishamonten. From Philipp Franz von Siebold's Nippon Archiv zur Beschreibung von Japan. Leiden (1831 CE). Siebold got the images from the Butsuzō-zui. Photo Page   |   Index Page   |   Top Page   |   Text Search
  5. Benzaiten Mandala. Early Edo era. H = 83 cm, W = 38.5. This small cutout from the mandala depicts the eight-armed Uga Benzaiten. She is surrounded by 15 disciples, Daikokuten, and Bishamonten. Location unknown. <Photo Source>
  6. Uga Benzaiten Mandala 天川弁才天曼荼羅 「天河と能楽」. Surrounded by 15 disciples, Daikokuten, and Bishamonten. Two white foxes fly above her head. They represent Inari, Dakiniten, or both. Details above (photo #3, caption #3). <Photo Source>      

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Seven Lucky Gods, 1783 Butsuzo-zui (includes Kichijoten, excludes Fukurokuju)
From the 1783 Butsuzō-zu-i
As members of the
Seven Lucky Gods
Click to Enlarge.

Daikokuten with miniature statue of Benzaiten hidden inside the main statue
Daikokuten with miniature
icon of Benzaiten inside.
See details at left.

Why Benzaiten, Bishamonten, and Daikokuten?
Why do these three appear together in numerous Japanese groupings? Unknown, but all three are worshiped independently, all are members of the Seven Lucky Gods, and all share various associations that involve the iconography of warfare, treasure (hence agriculture), and prosperity. For example, all three were introduced to Japan in the 6th-8th centuries as state-protecting warrior deities. This helps to explain why the trio are portrayed together as the three-headed Sanmen Daikokuten and held in high esteem by warriors. All three came to great prominence during the Kamakura & Muromachi periods (approx. 1185 to 1573), a time of incessant civil disturbance. The great military commanders of those days adopted these deities as personal saviors. The 8-armed form of Benzaiten, for instance, was popular among samurai warriors like Minamoto Yoritomo 源頼朝 (1147-1199; the first shogun), Oda Nobunaga 織田信長 (1534-1582; the great unifier), Toyotomi Hideyoshi 豊臣秀吉 (1536-1598; Nobunaga's chief general), and Kobayakawa Takakage 小早川隆景 (1533-1597; a powerful daimyo and ally of Hideyoshi). Both Minamoto Yoritomo and Taira no Kiyomori 平清盛 (1118-1181) worshipped Bishamonten to keep personal enemies at bay. The founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu 徳川家康 (1543-1616), was said to be a fervent believer in Daikokuten (need to give primary resource for this). Finally, from the 13th through 15th centuries, the orthodox Buddhist sects (Shingon and Tendai) plus the Six Schools of Nara) competed fiercely for followers, not only among themselves, but against the newly formed and thriving schools of the Kamakura reformation (Pure Land, Zen, & Nichiren), which stressed pure and simple faith over complicated rites and doctrines and deplored the perfumed embroidery of the court and the intellectual elitism of the entrenched monasteries.

Amidst this volatile scene, Japan's orthodox sects probably employed popular gods in new formats to attract and maintain their followers. The Seven Lucky Gods of Japan, for example, appeared sometime in the 15th century. If the above overview is accurate, it helps to explain why Bishamonten, Daikokuten, and Benzaiten began appearing often together in Japanese artwork and why they are included among Japan's Seven Luckies.

There are various other configurations that overlap in less obvious ways. For instance, the color white is closely associated with all three (Benzaiten's white snake companion, Daikoku's white rat and white hare, and Bishamonten's white horse), not to mention Dakiniten's white fox, as discussed earlier. Benzaiten was fused with Dakiniten, who was fused with Inari (kami of rice whose messenger is a white fox). Dakiniten, moreover, is a servant of Daikokuten (the lord of five grains and agriculture; who in Hindu myths wears a snake bracelet). Bishamonten is a powerful defender of Buddhist law and the lord of treasure -- and since rice and food are considered treasure and indicative of prosperity, Bishamonten's association with the group is most befitting. See Animal Associations, Color Associations.

PHOTO AT RIGHT. Daikokuten with miniature icon (Kakebotoke 懸仏 or Zōnai Nōnyūhin 像内納入品) of Benzaiten playing biwa located within. Kamakura era, Saidaiji Temple 西大寺, Nara. Photo Kanazawa Bunko 金沢文庫 Exhibtion Catalog (Dec. 9 - Feb. 5, 2012) Messages from Within: The World of Icons Hidden Inside Buddhist Statues. 仏像からのメッセジ-像内納入品の世界

 

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Benzaiten, Dakiniten, Kankiten
Three Devas as One Composite Fox-Riding Deva
In this configuration, Benzaiten once again appears with her standard (and by now familar) cast of supporting characters, i.e., Ugajin, Inari, Dakiniten, a white fox, wish-granting jewels, and 15 disciples. But it introduces a newcomer, the elephant-headed Shōten 聖天 (aka Kangiten 歓喜天). How do we account for the newcomer? It is not hard. There are at least three different ways: (1) the unction of enthronement rite for installing new emperors, in which Dakini (the central deity) is flanked by Shōten and Benzaiten; (2) the Shōten = Kannon = Inari = Dakini = Benzaiten route; (3) the Mahākāla route.

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Jump to three-headed, fox-riding deva
3-Headed Fox-Riding Deva
Muromachi Era, 15th Century.
Its three faces are those of
Dakiniten, Benzaiten, &
Shōten (or Kangiten).

In contrast to the Tendai school's three-faced Sanmen Daikokuten (see above) standing atop bales of rice, the three-faced Shingon version features Benzaiten, Dakiniten, and Shōten (Kangiten) sitting atop a white fox. This three-faced deity is considered a messenger of Inari. Although the disposition of the faces may vary, one of the faces commonly includes an effigy of Ugajin atop its head. Such paintings flourished in the Nanbokuchō and Muromachi periods (14th through 16th centuries). Says scholar Bernard Faure in The Benzaiten and Dakiniten Mandalas: "Toward the end of the Heian period, an esoteric Buddhist text referred to a strange three-faced deity called Yakṣa or Matarajin as the protector of Tōji 東寺, the headquarters of the Shingon school. Its three faces were those of the devas Dakiniten, Benzaiten, and Shōten (or Kangiten), three major figures of medieval esotericism. Unfortunately, no representation of that deity remains. It is only some three or four centuries later, during the Muromachi period, that a series of painted scrolls representing the Three Devas as one composite fox-riding deity surrounded by its acolytes became popular. These paintings present affinities with another type of representation known as the Tenkawa Benzaiten Mandala. This paper is trying to address the iconological problems raised by such paintings and their cultic background."

The ritual text Gyoki 御記 (1179 CE; T. 78, no. 2493, p. 614a15-21) by Japanese monk Shukaku 守覺 (1150-1202) mentions this three-faced deity -- with Shōten as the central golden face, Benzaiten on the right with a red face, and Dakiniten on the left with a white face. The color of the faces no doubt indicates some function (unknown to me). Perhaps "red" and "white" represent male and female energies, which would help explain the inclusion of the duel-headed (male-female) Shōten. Continues Faure: "It was said to be a messenger of Inari, and was believed to predict future events, eliminate calamities, and bring good fortune." In later times, he says, this three-headed image fit quite naturally the ternary logic of the Tendai school. "These Devas were said to represent the Three Truths of Tendai, corresponding to the Womb Realm, the Vajra Realm, and the Realm of Realization (susiddhi). The Three Devas were also worshiped on the margins or outside of Buddhism, in religious trends that came to be known as Onmyōdō 陰陽道 [Yin-Yang Divination], Shintō, and Shugendō. The importance of the fox of Inari and the role of the 'Three Foxes' in apotropaic rituals, have perhaps paved the way to the representation of the Three Devas as a fox-riding deity." <end quote Faure> This strange grouping of three Hindu deva is not as "arbitrary" or incoherent as it may seem. With just a little digging, we can find at least two sets of associations.
  • SET ONE. Shōten → Eleven-faced Kannon → Mahākāla → Dakiniten → Benzaiten
    The duel-bodied Shōten (or Kangiten) embodies the story of the Eleven-faced Kannon assuming female form to subjugate an evil king; also see story of the evil flesh-eating King Kalmāṣapāda who hopes to ascend the throne but eventually becomes good; one version of the story mentions Mahākāla (Daikokuten), who is the leader of the flesh-eating Dakini, and it was Dakini who served as the central deity in Japanese enthronement rites from the 14th century onward. When Dakini was the main deity in enthronement rites, she was flanked by Shōten and Benzaiten. <See Iyanaga, pp. 150-153, Logic of Combinatory Deities>

  • SET TWO. Inari → Nyoirin Kannon → Benzaiten → Dakini → Mahākāla → Shōten
    Except for Shōten, all are associated with the wish-granting jewel and fox. Dakiniten (fox, jewel) = Inari (fox, jewel) = Nyoirin Kannon (fox, jewel) = Benzaiten (dragon-snake, fox, jewel). A white elephant is also part of the interlocking mythological of  the "jewel woman" (aka Nyoirin Kannon). However, the association between the elephant-headed Shōten and Mahākāla-Dakini requires a few extra steps. <See Fremerman, p. 27; also includes research by Faure>

  • SET THREE. Mahākāla (Jp. = Daikokuten) is the subduer of the Dakini. The dakini are demons under the orders of the goddess Kālī, who is the feminine form of Mahākāla. The eight-armed Benzaiten was derived in large part from the Hindu battle goddess Durgā, who is a manifestation of Kālī. Finally, in the various myths involving Shōten, we encounter Mahākāla as well. Thus, in this configuration, two faces are probably female (Dakini, Benzaiten) while one face is male (Shōten).

Three-Headed Dakiniten Mandala (Osaka Municipal Museum of Art)

Dakiniten Mandala, or the Mandala of Three Deva

Dakiniten Mandala, or the Mandala of Three Deva

Dakiniten Mandala, or the Mandala of Three Deva

Dakiniten Mandala, or the Mandala of Three Deva

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Dakiniten Mandala 荼吉尼天曼荼羅. Click images to enlarge.
Three-Headed, 12-Armed, Fox-Riding Goddess. Early Muromachi Era 室町時代, 15th C
Color on Silk. H 82.5 cm x W 41.4 cm. Taho Collection 田万コレクション.
Also known as the Mandala of the 3-Headed, 12-Armed Dragon-Fox King 三面十二臂辰狐王曼荼羅
NOTE: Not sure why this is called the Dakiniten Mandala, as the central face is Benzaiten.
Photo:
Osaka Municipal Museum of Art  |  Osaka City Board of Education

DESCRIPTION OF ABOVE MANDALA. Various syncretic themes appear in the above mandala. The central head represents Benzaiten (atop which is Ugajin, a snake with an old man's face), the red face depicts Dakiniten (with a white lunar disk above her head), and the third face shows the elephant-headed Kankiten 歓喜天 (aka Shōten 聖天) with a red solar disk (containing a three-legged crow) atop her head. Above their heads are the seven stars of the Big Dipper. The museum says this piece "incorporates motifs that also reflect Inari Shinkō 稲荷信仰 and Sangaku Shinkō 山岳信仰." This can be translated as faith in Inari (Japanese rice & food kami) and faith in mountain worship and star worship. In Japanese artwork, Dakiniten is often paired with Inari. The messenger of both is a white fox. In addition, the museum says an inscription was found at the back of the mandala, giving it the name 三天合形曼荼羅 (Mandala of Three Deva), and suggesting that it came from Myōtoku-in Temple 比叡山明徳院 (Mt. Hiei, Tendai stronghold). Most of the figures along the border are the Jūroku Dōji 十六童子 (Sixteen Sons or Disciples of Benzaiten), some riding white foxes or other animals. Two Tengu appear at the bottom of the scroll (the white-colored Tonyūgyō 頓遊行 and the red-colored Suyochisō 須臾馳走. The two are considered Dakini's attendants, as well as martial deities who serve Inari Daimyōjin 稲荷大明神 at Japan's first and oldest Inari shrine (in Kyoto) known as Fushimi Inari Taisha 伏見稲荷大社. In the lower third of the painting, we see a red-colored man wearing a black hat (his body sports a fish tail) and a white-colored woman with a fox tail. Their identity is still unclear. The two foxes appearing next to them are biting their tails (details below).

SPECULATION: The identity of the male-female couple sporting a fish tail and fox tail remains a mystery, but there are indications to suggest their reference. The fish-tail male with black hat may be the aforementioned Matarajin (aka Shinra Myōjin 新羅明神), an esoteric deity who in artwork from the Kamakura-period onward is commonly depicted wearing a black hat and considered a "god of destiny," thus perhaps explaining the appearance in this scroll of the seven stars of the Big Dipper, which were worshipped in the form of the deity Myōken 妙見 (the deification of the North Pole Star & Big Dipper), one believed to control the life spans and destinies of the people. Myōken is also closely associated with the sun and moon disks and a black three-legged crow. Moreover, "Matarajin," says Bernard Faure, "first appeared to the Japanese priest Enchin 円珍 (814-891) as a theriomorphic figure, with a man's head and a serpent's body; as such, he calls to mind Ugajin, a god associated with the dragon-goddess Benzaiten." Then again, the man with the black hat might be Inari himself (in the guise of Matarajin). As for the fish tail, let us recall that Inari was worshipped in fishing villages as the kami of fishing, and in artwork, Inari is sometimes portrayed wearing a hat. More remotely, the fish tail might be an obscure reference to Tsukuyomi 月読命 (Kami of Agriculture, the Moon, and Ruler of the Night) who killed the food goddess Ukemochi no Kami 保食神 after she vomited rice and fish from her mouth to feed him, and from her dead body emerged all manner of cereals (food) and game, including oxen and horses. The fox-tailed female might be Dakini herself, who is closely associated with the rice crop and with Inari. The image of two foxes biting the couple's tails brings to mind the imagery of Tantric wheel-of-life paintings. In the center of such paintings one finds three animals (pig for greed, snake for anger, and rooster for ignorance) biting each others' tails -- to show that these evils are inseparably connected.

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Mandala of Dakiniten of Kasuga Shrine
Mandala of Dakiniten of Kasuga Shrine (Kasuga Taisha 春日大社)
Kasuga Daikiniten Mandara Zu 春日荼吉尼天曼荼羅図. Japanese, Muromachi period, 14th century
H = 109.1 cm, W = 32.1 cm, Panel; ink, color, and gold on silk. Photo from Boston Museum of Fine Arts
NOTE: Not sure why this is called the Dakiniten Mandala, as the central face is Shōten (aka Kankiten).

DESCRIPTION OF ABOVE MANDALA. Although the details of this painting are hard to see, the 3-headed main deity sits atop a white fox, which appears to be plunging through space with its rear legs shown thrusting prominently behind it. The central face is Kankiten 歓喜天 (aka Shōten 聖天), surrounded on either side by Benzaiten and Dakiniten. A coiled snake representing Ugajin appears atop Shōten's head. At the top of the mandala is Mt. Kasuga, under which is a deer (the sacred animal of Kasuga Taisha), an important 8th-century shrine founded in Nara by the Fujiwara 藤原 clan. Along the borders are various deities. Above the 3-headed deity, to the left and right, are the goddesses Kichijōten 吉祥天 and Kariteimo 訶梨帝母. Kariteimo is surrounded by children, while Kichijōten is riding a red bird-like creature, which might be Suzaku 朱雀 (guardian of the south) or perhaps a phoenix. These two goddesses appear often in artwork of Benzaiten, as shown above in the 12th-century zushi painting of the 8-armed Benzaiten, as well as in the aforementioned Tenkawa Mandala. Four female attendants also appear; two (drawn smaller than the rest) below Kichijōten, and two others (riding white foxes) below the central deity. Directly below the main 3-headed deity is a brown-colored figure, which seems to be the traditional dual-headed, dual-bodied form of Kankiten. Below that is a red-colored deity engulfed in a fire-like circle (probably Aizen Myō-ō, who often appears in this form; in the late Edo period, he also appears in artwork as a white snake). Flanking Aizen's upper region are two unknown attendants. One appears to be riding a dragon. These two unidentified deities might be the same two that appear in the 12th-century zushi painting of the 8-armed Benzaiten. The last two figures at the bottom are the Tengu creature associated with Dakiniten, and the three-headed, six-armed, black-colored Sanmen Daikoku, who in artwork commonly carries an elephant skin and sword while grasping the hair of a Gaki 餓鬼 (Hungry Ghost) and the horns of a sheep. Various offerings are strewn about the bottom of the painting. 

AIZEN & DAKINI. MORE RESEARCH REQUIRED
Who is the red deity engulfed in a fire-like circle in the Dakini Mandala shown above? Why might it be Aizen Myō-ō? And why is Aizen portrayed as a snake? Certain iconography strongly suggests this to be Aizen (e.g. the bright red color). But the pivotal link is the wish-granting jewel, an attribute shared by Aizen, Dakini, Daibenzaiten, and others. Aizen, the king of passion, converts earthly desire (love / lust) into spiritual awakening. By the 13th century he was invoked in rites to avoid calamity, to obtain prosperity, or to bring harmony, friendship, and love. In later times he became the protective deity of courtesans. This three-eyed six-armed deity is commonly depicted holding a bow and arrow. The undeniable temptation is to compare Aizen to Eros in Greek myth (aka Cupid in Roman myth). But the bow & arrow had nothing to do with love in Buddhism's early development. Rather they symbolized the protection of the state. Perhaps, by the Edo period, Japan linked the Greco-Roman Cupid with Aizen, and equated the striking of one's heart by the arrow as causing one to fall in love. Aizen is an example of a jewel-bearing deity who was linked with various femininely-inclined deities, including Amaterasu, Butsugen, and Juichimen Kannon, and sometimes with Nyoirin. Aizen possesses both male and female natures. <source Bernard Faure; see Raging Gods.
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click to enlarge
Aizen (perhaps) in the Mandala of Dakiniten at Kasuga Shrine

click to enlarge
Aizen as a snake

click to enlarge
Aizen as a snake

The red-colored deity engulfed in a fire-like circle (as shown in the above Mandala of Dakiniten at Kasuga Shrine) may or may not be Aizen Myō-ō.

Aizen as a snake. Edo era. Sitting atop lotus. Wish-granting jewel atop head. H = 50.8 cm, W = 27.0 cm. Saidaiji Temple 西大寺, Nara. Scanned from exhibit catalog at Kanazawa Bunko 神奈川県立金沢文庫, Yokohama.

Aizen as a snake. Edo era. Sitting atop a three-pronged vajra atop a lotus. H = 41.6 cm, W = 27.2 cm. Saidaiji Temple 西大寺, Nara. Scanned from exhibit catalog at Kanazawa Bunko 神奈川県立金沢文庫, Yokohama.


 

 

Aizen Myō-ō
愛染明王


Aizen - Seed Sound - U-UN; Image courtesy of http://www.tctv.ne.jp/tobifudo/
Aizen's Seed Syllable
U-UN

Name: Rāga-rāja

MORE ABOUT AIZEN. Aizen is closely connected with the magical wish-granting jewel (Jp. = Hōju 宝珠 or 寶珠; Sanskrit = cintāmaṇi, cintamani), as are Benzaiten, Dakini, Nyoirin Kannon, Jizō Bosatsu, and many other deities. Depending on the deity involved, the jewel can signify the bestowal of blessings on all who suffer, grant wishes, pacify desires, and bring clear understanding of the Dharma (Buddhist law). Aizen worshippers often used the jewel to pray for success in their romantic relationships. One important ceremony was called the Jewel of Aizen Myō-ō Rite 如法愛染王法, pronounced Nyohō Aizen ō hō, which was used in the 13th and 14th centuries by esoteric sects to pray for the love and respect of others. This Aizen rite is a variant of the main esoteric ceremony known as the Wish-Granting Jewel Rite (Nyoi Hōju Hō 如意宝珠法). This rite began sometime in the late Heian period, spearheaded by the Daigo-ji Temple 醍醐寺 (Shingon) in Kyoto. Elsewhere, the Ise Kanjō Ritual 伊勢勧請 (circa mid-13th century) was preseved on slips of paper called kirikami 切紙 (literally "paper strips") describing secret instructions, mudras, mantras, and other esoteria that were handed down from generation to generation. This initiation rite involved the syllable UN -- a syllable at the heart of the ritual -- which is also the seed syllable (shuji 種子) for Aizen. The "kirigami go on to teach that the kami of the Inner and Outer Shrine of Ise appear in our world as a golden and a white snake, and in attached kuden 口伝 [editor: secrets orally taught or only written down in secret initiation documents] point out that Aizen's siddham seed syllabe UN, too, has the form of a snake. It would seem that it was this teaching, the revelation that both the kami of Ise and Aizen are snakes, that constituted the centre piece of this Ise Kanjō." <Breen, Teeuwen in Shinto in History: Ways of the Kami> Elsewhere, Aizen is said to personify lust, Fudō anger, and Dakini impurity. Please read Breen/Teeuwen for many other descriptions of the linkages of these and other deities of desire, demonic features, and esoteric associations (see pages 102-104, 109-111, & 115). The triad of lust, anger, and impurity calls to mind another similar triad associated with the Tibetan Tanka. In the latter, the triad is represented by three animals -- a pig (greed), a snake (anger & hatred), and a rooster (ignorance & delusion). The three animals are often shown biting each others tails, to show that these evils are inseparably connected. It is said these evils stem from fundamental ignorance. Together, the triad is said to represent the root causes of trouble on earth. For a few more details on Aizen and avoiding calamity and gaining prosperity, see JAANUS.

 

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Benzaiten's 15 or 16 Disciples
Jūgo Dōji 十五童子 = Fifteen Sons, Boy Attendants, Disciples, Escorts, or Daughters
Jūroku Dōji 十六童子 = Sixteen Sons, Boy Attendants, Disciples, Escorts, or Daughters

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Rokuji Myo-o from the 12th-century Besson Zakki
Uga Benzaiten & 15 Attendants. Early 14th century, hanging scroll, ink & color on paper. H = 129.1.9 cm x 52.4 cm. Coiled snake atop her head. At bottom is a dragon king making offerings. Kotohira-gū Shrine 金刀比羅宮 (Kagawa). Considered the oldest extant painting of Uga Benzaiten and her 15 attendants. Photo Nara National Museum, but scanned from Impressions, Number 33, 2012, story by Catherine Ludvik, Uga Benzaiten: The Goddess & the Snake.

In Japanese Esoteric Buddhism (Mikkyō 密教), Benzaiten is associated with 15 disciples (Jūgo Dōji 十五童子) said to symbolize the crafts for which she is the patroness. They appeared in spurious medieval scriptures (circa 13th century) known as the Benten Sutras, as well as the early 14th-century Keiran Shūyōshū (see Taishō Canon, 76, 2140, 783c.). However, the late 17th-century lexiconical dictionary Butsuzō-zui lists 16 dōji (disciples). This discrepancy "probably" stems from the story appearing in Keiran Shūyōshū, wherein we learn that a king from southern India named Tokuzen Daiō 徳善大王 (Jp. reading) had 15 sons, but the youngest son mysteriously disappeared seven days after his birth. After making inquires with the semi-divine human Nāgārjuna 龍樹 (Jp. = Ryūju), the king learns that his missing son is living at Sefurizan 背振山 in Japan. The king is overjoyed and together with his 14 sons and Nāgārjuna he travels to Japan, where he becomes an avatar of Benzaiten named Sefuri Gongen 背振権現. His 15 sons, led by the youngest Sensha 船車 (aka Otogohō Zenshin 乙護法善神), become Benzaiten's 15 disciples (dōji 童子). The king plus his 15 sons represent a group of 16, so perhaps the confusion lies here -- with the addition of the king. In the same story from the Keiran Shūyōshū, the king is further identified as one of the Sixteen Benevolent Deities (Jūroku Zenshin 十六善神) and one of the Sixteen Great Bodhisattva 十六大菩薩. Here again we find the number sixteen, which may have prompted the addition of a 16th member. In Japanese artwork, the 15 or 16 Dōji appear in paintings and sculpture portraying the snake-related Uga Benzaiten. Let us note that Nāgārjuna (who journeyed to Sefurizan with the king) literally means "Serpent-Dragon Tree 龍樹." The central pillars at Ise (which we may liken to a tree post) are the residence of Benzaiten, and Nāgārjuna represents the white snakes that reportedly live under the central pillars of the inner and outer shrines at Ise. <source: Teeuwen & Rambelli, pp. 49-52> Various shrines and temples (e.g., Tenkawa Jinja) represent all 16, and at some locations (e.g. Hase Dera in Kamakura), Benzaiten is associated with 16 daughters. At Kamakura's Hase Dera, a cave with 16 life-size statues, all female, is found on the ground level of the temple. As discussed earlier, Benzaiten artwork is closely related to Japan's main agricultural deities, namely Inari (Japanese kami of rice) and Daikokuten (Buddhist deity of agriculture and wealth). Among the 15-16 sons-daughters, one in particular is related to Inari -- Tōchū 稻籾, who assumes the common iconography of Inari holding bundles of rice -- and another named Zenzai 善財, who is considered a manifestation of either Daikokuten or Otogohō Zenshin. It is Zenzai, the 16th member of the group, who was the "addition" and became the group's leader. But in traditions involving only 15 disciples, as at Sefurizan, it is the youngest son Sensha (aka Otogohō) who leads the group. Otogohō is enshrined at Sefurizan, where he is venerated as a servant/manifestation of Benzaiten. He is also venerated at Asosan 阿蘇山 and Shoshazan 書写山.

SPECULATION: In modern-day commentary from the 2005 reprint of the Butsuzō-zui, scholar Ito Takemi 伊藤武美 (b. 1927) mentions a 15-day ritual, starting on the first day of each month and ending on the 15 day of each month, in which daily offerings are made to the wealth-bringing snake kami Ugajin (Benzaiten's companion). This required one of the sixteen (Zenzai 善財) to be dropped and placed into a class by himself -- as their leader. Ito Takemi says this 15-day offering may have evolved from Chinese Taoist concepts.

Inari Daimyojin as appearing in the 1690 Butsuzo-zui

Tochu Doji as appearing in the 1690 Butsuzo-zui

Inari Daimyojin as appearing in the 1783 Butsuzo-zui

Tochu Doji as appearing in the 1783  Butsuzo-zui

Zenzai Doji as appearing in the 1690 Butsuzo-zui

1690 Butsuzō-zui
Inari Daimyōjin
稲荷大明神; rice kami.
22nd Day; One of the
30 Kami of 30 Days

1690 Butsuzō-zui
Tōchū Dōji 稲籾童子
5th of Benzaiten's
15/16 Attendants
Holding rice & jewel.

1783 Butsuzō-zui
Inari Daimyōjin
稲荷大明神; rice kami.
22nd Day; One of the
30 Kami of 30 Days

1783 Butsuzō-zui
Tōchū Dōji 稲籾童子
5th of Benzaiten's 15/16 Attendants
Holding rice & jewel.

1690 Butsuzō-zui
Zenzai Dōji 善財童子
Leads the 15; an
avatar of
Daikoku
(god of agriculture)

Benzaiten's 15 (16) Disciples Listed in Their Customary Order. In Japan, these 15 (16) disciples are known as Dōji 童子, meaning boy, youth, prince, or child. Dōji is the Sino-Japanese translation of the Sanskrit term Kumāra 倶摩羅, which refers to those who wish to join the priesthood and begin by becoming servants of the monks.

Sensha Doji, God of Traffic Safety
1783 Butsuzō-zui

Gyuba Doji, God of Animals and Husbandry
1783 Butsuzō-zui

Shusen Doji, God of Distillers
1783 Butsuzō-zui

Hanki Doji, Good of Food and Cooks
1783 Butsuzō-zui

Tochu Doji, God of Farmers
1783 Butsuzō-zui

Jugo Doji = 15 Sons of Benzaiten. Click to enlarge.
1690 Butsuzō-zui

 

Name

Manifestation

Attributes

Esoteric Mantra

1

Inyaku 印鑰 or
Jyakō 麝香

Shaka Nyorai,
the Historic Buddha

Holds wish-granting jewel and square key; represents guardians, and those who help others achieve enlightenment

おんうかや。ぎヤちぎヤかねい。
えいけいきそわか。

2

Kantai 官帯 or
Sekion 赤音

Fugen Bosatsu

Holds belt; represents the law; helps people observe the law

おんぎヤかぎヤか。
うかやえいけいきそわか。

3

Hikken 筆硯 or
Kōsei 香精

Kongōshu Bosatsu, aka Kongō Rikishi; also Fugen Bosatsu

Holds brush & writing tablet (ink stone); represents students and civil servants; the god of learning;

おんうかや。えいひじヤ。
えいけいきそわか。

4

Konzai 金財 or
Shōjō 召請

Yakushi Nyorai,
the Medicine Buddhai

Holds balancing scale; represents doctors; some traditions say Konzai is the god of gold, silver, and treasure, and holds the balancing scale to measure coins; said to bring prosperity

おんうかや。ほされいじヤ。
えいけいきそわか。

5

Tōchū 稻籾 or
Daijin 大神

Monju Bosatsu

Shoulders bundles of harvested rice and holds wish-granting jewel; represents farmers and  brings bumper crops

おんされいあされい。
うかや。そわか。

6

Keishō 計升 or
Akujo 悪女

Jizō Bosatsu

Holds a masu 升 (square container for measuring grain); represents fairness; the god of accounting

おんしつりしつみり。みりはり。
はりさんまんだきヤらしヤに。
うかやえいけいきそわか。

7

Hanki 飯櫃 or
Shitsugetsu 質月

Senju Kannon

Carries plate of rice on head; represents cooks; the god who bestows food

おんぎヤぎヤなう。
びしユだねい。うかや。そわか。

8

Ishō 衣裳 or
Jōki 除哂

Marishiten

Carries cloth; represents weavers; god who ensures that people are clothed and are not naked to the elements 

おんびもら。びまれい。
うかや。そわか。

9

Sanyō 蠶養
or Himan 悲満

Seishi Bosatsu

Holds bowl full of silkworms; represents silkworm breeders; the god of silkworms and cocoons and the benefits they bring

おんひまれい。
うかや。そわか。

10

Shusen 酒泉 or
Misshaku 密迹

Muryōju Nyorai
aka Amida Nyorai

Holds sake jar & wish-granting jewel; represents distillers; god of alcohol; sometimes depicted as though dipping into the keg

おんうかや。
ぎヤらべいぎヤりぎヤり。
そわか。

11

Aikyō 愛敬
or Sekon 施願

Shō Kannon

Holds bow and arrow; represents military class; the god of love

おんぎヤぎヤりぎヤぎヤり。
そわか。

12

Shōmyō 生命 or
Seiko 臍虚空

Miroku Bosatsu

Holds sword & wish-granting jewel; represents magistrates; god of longevity

おんうかや。
げんばりげんばり。そわか。

13

Jūsha 従者 or
Semmui 施無畏

Ryūju Kannon or
Ryūju Bosatsu 竜樹菩薩

Holds tray of wish-granting jewels; represents jewellers; god of commerce. Ryūju is the Japanese name for Nāgārjuna.

おんうかや。ぎヤちぎヤち。
我まねいぎヤれい。そわか。

14

Gyūba 牛馬
or Zuirei 随令

Yakūo Bosatsu

Leads a horse and ox; represents livestock breeders and husbandry; the god of animals

おんうかや。まそに。
そわか。

15

Sensha 船車 or
Kōmyō 光明

Yakujō Bosatsu

Guards boat and cart loaded with rice; represents carriers; god of traffic safety; the 14th-century Keiran Shūyōshū (chapter entitled Gohō no Koto or Matters About Dharma Protectors), Sensha is another name for Otogohō, the yougest son of an Indian king (who is Benzaiten's avatar). Sensha/Otogohō is thus Benten's adopted son & leader of the others. He is enshrined at Sefurizan (see below), a Benten stronghold.

おんうかや。ほだたつま。
そうぎえい。
ひやくえい。そわか。

Otogohō 乙護法 strongholds include Sefurizan 背振山, Asosan 阿蘇山, and Shoshazan 書写山. Linked also to Nāgārjuna.

16

Zenzai 善財 or
Otsugo 乙護 or
Otogohō Zenshin
乙護法善神
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Daikokuten or
Benzaiten; also
Sudhana śreṣṭhidāraka
(see note below)
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Holds treasure bag; adopted son of Benzaiten; also one of Monju's 500 Dōji; the leader of the other 15; represents the Kegon-kyō 華厳経 (Garland Sutra), protects Buddhist devotees and those who do good deeds; two conflicting stories about him (see note 5 below);

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Confusion with
Sensha (#15 above)
stemming from two
varying traditions, i.e. are
there 15 disciplines or 16 ?
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Sources & Notes

  1. Butsuzō-zui 仏像図彙. Above images from both the 1690 original and 1783 expanded version.
  2. Flammarion Guide, p. 336-337.
  3. Esoteric Mantra Readings. Above mantras come from a spurious medieval-era text known as the Bussetsu Saishō Gokoku Ūgaya Tontoku Nyōi Hōju Darani-Kyō 仏説最勝護国宇賀耶頓得如意宝珠王陀羅尼経.
  4. Kōyasan Shingon-shū 高野山真言宗・亀乃瀬弁才天・国分寺.
  5. Zenzai 善財 (#16 in list). There are two conflicting theories about his identity. In one tradition, he is a manifestation of Sudhana śreṣṭhidāraka. Says the DDB (user name = guest): "The story told is of a merchant-banker's son (śreṣṭhidāraka) named Sudhana (lit. 'Good Wealth;' Jp. = Zenzai Dōshi 善財童子), who searches for enlightenment in ancient India during the time of the Buddha. On the advice of the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī 文殊師利 (Jp. = Monju), he sets out to visit 'good friends' (善知識; Skt. kalyāṇamitra) in order to learn how to carry out the course of conduct of a bodhisattva. After traveling far and wide across India visiting fifty-two good friends of various occupations (including the bodhisattva Maitreya 彌勒; Jp. = Miroku), Sudhana has his final visionary experience of the supreme bodhisattva Samantabhadra 普賢 (Jp. = Fugen) and merges with him." <end quote> This story appears in the Garland Sutra 華厳経 (devoted to Fugen). Japan's Zenzai Dōshi personifies this sutra. At Hase Dera in Kamakura, Zenzai is considered a manifestation of Daikokuten. For a detailed English version of the Sudhana story, click here. In another tradition, the leader of Benzaiten's 15 disciples is known as Otogohō Zenshin 乙護法善神, who is venerated as Benzaiten's adopted son and avatar at Sefurizan 背振山, Asosan 阿蘇山, and Shoshazan 書写山. Otogohō's story is quite different from that of Zenzai.
  6. 16 Children of Benzaiten (editor: below unconfirmed). One story is that 15 Princes and one Princess set out from Japan, which at that time was still part of the ancient continent of Mu, to populate the world. They went to various parts of the globe. Apparently their names are similar to the names of the various continents & countries. 

Benzaiten's 15 (16) Disciples
Other Artwork including Daikokuten, Bishamonten, and the Dragon King

click to enlarge
Uga Benzaiten, 15 Attendants (MFA Boston),  14th century

click to enlarge
Uga Benzaiten, 15 Attendants (MFA Boston),  14th - 15 th century

click to enlarge
Uga Benzaiten, 15 Attendants (Bonhams Auction),  17th century

click to enlarge
Uga Benzaiten, 15 Attendants (Michann Auctions),  Edo-Meiji Period

click to enlarge
Uga Benzaiten & 15 Attendants.

The above paintings of Uga Benzaiten and her 15 (or 16) attendants share very similar iconography. In addition to the attendants, Uga Benzaiten is often shown holding a wish-granting jewel and flanked by Daikokuten and Bishamonten. Wish-granting jewels are strew throughout the paintings, while ocean waves are shown at bottom (sometimes with the dragon king emerging from the water to offer a bowl of jewels). One of the oldest extant paintings of this theme (shown here) is a treasure of Kotohira-gū Shrine 金刀比羅宮 (in Shikoku) dated to the early 14th century. <source Ludvik> Other oft-seen elements are the sun and moon, symbols of the complementary forces of nature. The sun and moon appear frequently in Japanese Buddhist paintings and sculpture and are not specific to Benzaiten. The cart and boat loaded with bundles of grain (mentioned earlier) are another common theme in Uga Benzaiten paintings.

  1. 8-Armed Uga Benzaiten & Fifteen Attendants, Muromachi period, 14th century. Scroll, ink, color, & gold on silk. H = 98.7 cm, W = 39.3 cm.. Photo Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Purchased originally by Ernest Fenollosa (1853–1908). The painting actually includes 16 attendant figures -- one of whom is Daikokuten. One of the deity's hands hold a wish-granting jewel.
  2. 8-Armed Uga Benzaiten, 15 Attendants, Daikokuten, and Bishamonten, 14th-15th century, H = 88.6 cm, W = 36 cm. Purchased originally by Ernest Fenollosa (1853–1908). Photo Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Another similar painting, from the 15th century, was auctioned by Christie's in 2009 (with writeup by Ludvik). One of the deity's hands hold a wish-granting jewel, with multiple jewels appearing at the top of the painting as well. Another similar painting, known as Tenkawa Mandala or Uga Benzaiten Mandala (Photo #3), is located at Tenkawa Shrine in Tenkawa Village (Yoshino region, Nara Prefecture).
  3. 8-Armed Uga Benzaiten, 15 Attendants, Daikokuten, and Bishamonten. 17th century. Hanging scroll, ink, color and gold on silk. H = 97.4 cm, W = 47.1 cm. Holding martial instruments; the coiled snake Ugajin atop her head. She is flanked by Daikokuten, Bishamonten, and 15 disciples. Sits atop rocky island, with ocean waves at bottom of painting. Above her are clouds, a jewel-topped mountain, and the sun and moon icons. One of the deity's hands hold a wish-granting jewel. Photo Auction House = Bonhams.
  4. Uga Benzaiten, 15 Attendants, Daikokuten, and Bishamonten, ink and color on silk, Edo/Meiji Period, H = 98 cm, W = 43 cm. One of the deity's hands hold a wish-granting jewel. Photo Michaan's Auctions.
  5. 8-armed Uga Benzaiten & 15 Attendants. 15th or 16th century, scroll, ink & color on paper. H = 135.9 cm x 49.2 cm. Coiled snake atop head. Photo New York Met. To Benzaiten's left are two laborers bringing bundles of grain to port, depicted here as a small pond with a boat and cart. Next to the pond is Sensha Dōji (aka Kōmyō Dōji). The boat & cart form a pair, as Sensha's name literally means "boat & cart." They symbolize a bountiful harvest and appear often in Uga Benzaiten art. The New York Met dates this drawing to the 13th century, but this appears mistaken. The oldest representation of the 15 with Benzaiten is generally considered that at Kotohira-gū Shrine 金刀比羅宮 (in Shikoku) dated to the early 14th century.

daikokuten-TN-with-benzaiten-scroll-inside
Daikokuten, Wood

benzaiten-dakiniten-TN-daikokuten-scroll-nanbokucho-era
Benzaiten Scroll, H 71.2 cm, W 36.6 cm.

Daikokuten statue, Nanbokucho period, private collection, with scroll of Benzaiten, Inari-Dakini, 15 attendants hidden within. Snake atop her head. A large comical-looking black Mahakala (Daikokuten) with mallet carries the scroll in his treasure sack. Kamakura era, Saidaiji Temple 西大寺, Nara. Photo Kanazawa Bunko 金沢文庫 Exhibtion Catalog (Dec. 9 - Feb. 5, 2012) Messages from Within: The World of Icons Hidden Inside Buddhist Statues. 仏像からのメッセジ-像内納入品の世界. Click here to read Nara Museum placard for this statue reproduction.

 

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Wish-Granting Jewel and Nyoirin Kannon
The Jewel, Foxes, Snakes, Benzaiten, Amaterasu, Inari, Dakini, Seiryō Gongen and Others

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Benzaiten as part of the Nyoirin Kannon Configuration
Nyoirin Kannon is part of a three-pronged
configuration involving jewel-bearing goddesses of
wealth and fertility. Pivotal links among the three
groups involve wish-granting jewels, dragons and snakes and foxes, plus "feminine" gender.

Benzaiten's cult is part of a complex web of associations and deity families that emerged from the Shingon and Tendai esoteric camps from the late 11th century onward. One of the most important pivot points in these configurations is the Buddhist deity Nyoirin Kannon Bosatsu 如意輪観音菩薩 and her wish-granting jewel (Jp. = Hōju 宝珠 or 寶珠 or Nyoi Hōju 如意寶珠). For all practical purposes, Benzaiten and Nyoirin share the same cast of supporting characters, including Dakiniten, Inari (female form), Amaterasu, and others like Seiryō Gongen (discussed below). The defining attributes of Nyoirin are the wish-granting jewel and the eight-spoked Dharma wheel (rinpō 輪宝), both which s/he is always holding. The jewel signifies the bestowal of blessings on all who suffer, for it grants wishes, pacifies desires, and brings clear understanding of the Dharma (Buddhist law). This equates to "wealth" in  Buddhist philosophy. The wheel symbolizes the teachings of Buddhism and the eight-fold path to salvation. This also equates to "wealth" in Japanese Buddhism. Nyoirin's name is thus commonly translated as "Bodhisattva of the Jewel and Wheel" or "Sovereign of the Wish-Granting Wheel" (Skt. = Cintā-maṇi-cakra Avalokitêśvara). The configurations explored below touch only briefly on this vast topic. Central to each is the wish-granting jewel, which links Benzaiten to other jewel-bearing deities (see above chart) and to jewel-holding dragons, snakes, and foxes. Resources for further study are given at the end of this section. Some key configurations are:
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    Nyoirin Kannon Bosatsu, 9th Century, Kanshinji Temple, Osaka
    Nyoirin Kannon Bosatsu holding jewel, wheel, and other objects.
    9th Century, Kanshinji 観心寺,
    a Shingon temple in Osaka.
    Oldest extant Nyoirin statue in Japan.
    Photo: this J-site

    Seiryo (Seiryu) Gongen painting at the Hatakeyama Memorial Museum of Fine Art in Toky. No date given at J-site where photo was discovered.
    Seiryō Gongen 清瀧権現 or 青竜権現
    hold a wish-granting jewel.
    Hatakeyama Memorial Museum
    畠山記念館蔵 (Tokyo). No date
    given by J-source.

    Nyoirin Kannon Bosatsu, 9th Century, Kanshinji Temple, Osaka
    Zennyo Ryū-ō 善女竜王 (Great Female Dragon King) holding sword and wish-granting jewel surrounded by a dragon.  Muromachi Era, Ishikawa Nanao Art Museum, Ishikawa Pref. While many extant images depict the deity as male, this cutout of a painting by artist Hasegawa Tōhaku 長谷川等伯 (1539-1610) portrays the deity as female.
    Photo this J-site.

    Ofuda (talisman) of Fushimi Inari Taisha (head shrine of Inari worship, located in Kyoto)
    Talisman of Fushimi Inari Shrine (Kyoto)
    depicting wish-granting jewels, foxes,
    snakes, and rice bales, all dedicated
    to the rice kami Uganomitama, who is
    generally considered to be Inari.
    See below for more details.

     

    In the 14th-century Keiran Shūyōshū 渓嵐拾葉集, a multi-volume document compiled between 1318-1348 AD containing many of the oral legends of the Tendai esoteric stronghold at Mt. Hiei, Nyoirin is equated with Inari, who is equated with Amaterasu at Ise. In the same document, Benzaiten is equated with Nyoirin and with the dragon girl -- the latter is the daughter of the dragon king Sāgara 娑竭羅. She appears in the Devadatta chapter of the Lotus Sutra, wherein she attains enlightenment and offers her wish-fulfilling jewel to Sakyamuni (the Historical Buddha). Sāgara is the dragon king who causes rain to fall. Dragons, rain, and female gender all equate with Benzaiten's evolution in Japan.
  • Seiryō Gongen 清瀧権現 or 青龍権現, a jealous mountain deity on Mt. Kasatori 笠取山 northeast of Kyoto; a dragon kami goddess depicted holding a wish-fulfilling jewel. Seiryō Gongen is portrayed in two iconographic forms: (1) as a beautiful woman similar to Kichijōten holding a wish-granting jewel, or (2) as a two-headed snake symbolizing Nyoirin Kannon and Juntei Kannon. In India and China, Juntei Kannon was considered a female deity granting conjugal happiness, fertility, and safe childbirth, whereas Nyoirin Kannon was originally male but in Japan was "feminized." <source Fremerman> Seiryō Gongen bears a striking resemblance to Benzaiten. Seiryō legend originated in China, where the deity was associated with the Chinese temple Qinglóngsì 靑龍寺 in Cháng'ān 長安 (present-day Xi'an 西安 in Shanxi province). After arriving in Japan, the spelling of her name was changed from Seiryū 青龍 (blue/green dragon) to Seiryō 清瀧 (pure waterfall), with the water radical added to the original characters (青龍 → 清瀧). Says JAANUS: "She was enshrined in Jingoji 神護寺 in Takao 高尾 as a guardian of the Shingon 真言 sect by Kūkai 空海 (774-836) upon his return from China. She was worshipped by Priest Shōbō 聖宝 (832-909) at Daigoji 醍醐寺 as a manifestation of Nyoirin Kannon 如意輪観音. This Kannon was said to grant long life, safe births, and to stave off natural disasters. Structures dedicated to her were built at the summit and foot of Mt. Takao in 1097. She usually appears as a lady wearing court robes (jūnihitoe 十二単) and carrying a jewel (hōju 宝珠). However she is also identified with Zennyo Ryū-ō 善女竜王 [editor: also read Zenmyō) a legendary dragon king who appeared and brought rain to Kūkai and who is usually seen in Chinese robes with a dragon's tail poking out from under them." <end JAANUS quote> As for Zennyo Ryū-ō (Virtuous Female Dragon King), JAANUS says: "The subject of a painting by one of the disciples of Kūkai. In 824 Kūkai prayed for rain at Shinsen'en 神泉苑 in the Imperial Palace Kyoto as a result of which Zennyo Ryū-ō is said to have appeared on Mt. Atago 愛宕 and caused it to rain. In a painting of the same event made by Jōchi 定智 (active mid 12c) housed in Kongōbuji 金剛峯寺 on Mt Kōya 高野, Wakayama Prefecture, the deity appears in the guise of a Tang official riding a cloud. He holds a tray with a jewel in his left hand and has a snake's tail showing behind his robes. Images of him are likely to have been used in prayers for rain, and such prayers were addressed to him at Shinsen'en in later times." <end JAANUS quote>
     
  • Nyoirin Kannon = Inari (fox), both associated with the wish-granting jewel. Nyoirin Kannon is considered Inari's original form. For example, Inari Daimyōjin is Nyoirin's transformation body in a grouping known as the 30 Kami of 30 Days.
     
  • Nyoirin Kannon is considered the honji 本地 (original Buddhist manifestation) of the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu. Benzaiten is also considered a transformation body of Amaterasu. Hence, Nyoirin = Amaterasu = Benzaiten.
     
  • By the 11th century, Nyoirin Kannon was identified with the jewel-holding (formerly demonic) Dakini. Later, in the 14th century, Dakini became the central deity in the Ono-branch Shingon-sect ceremony for imperial ordination, in which Nyoirin was revealed to be a form of both Dakini and the kami Inari -- the latter, in turn, was considered a transformation body of the supreme sun goddess Amaterasu. <Fremerman, p. 14>. For more on imperial ordination rites, see The Daijōsai: A "Shinto" Rite of Imperial Accession, pp. 168-198, in A New History of Shinto, by John Breen & Mark Teeuwen, 2010.
     
  • In the 14th-century Keiran Shūyōshū, the term Shindamani-ō 辰陀摩尼王 is clearly linked to Benzaiten. The Sanskrit word for wish-granting jewel is maṇi, cintā-maṇi, or cintamani. Shindamani-ō is "an epithet for Dakiniten (see T. 76, 2410, 732a). This passage explains that the cintamani is Dakiniten's samaya form [editor = symbolic/object form], and then describes her seven fox attendants, which symbolize the seven jewels of the cakravartin [editor = wheel-turning king, one who spreads the teachings]. In a move typical of this text, in the name Shindamani 辰陀摩尼 it plays with the first character, normally a transliteration of the Sanskrit 'cin,' but here replaced with the 'shin' 辰 of 'shinko' 辰狐, or astral fox. 'Shindamani-ō' is also linked to Benzaiten, who in the Tendai esoteric is sometimes called by the epithet 'Nyōi hoju ō' (Cintāmani Sovereign). It is probably no accident both Dakiniten and Benzaiten are referred to by variations of this name." <source: Fremerman, p. 156> NOTE: Amaterasu is said to appear as an astral fox while hiding in the heavenly cave.
     
  • In esoteric Tendai Sannō traditions at Mt. Hiei, Nyoirin Kannon equals Inari (kami of agriculture and wealth) -- the latter appears in both a male and female form, although the male form is more common. The female form is known as Seijo Gongen 聖女権現 (Holy Woman Avatar). Inari, as we have seen, is often shown holding a wish-granting jewel, as is Dakini, as is Benzaiten. This convergence of Seijo/Inari with Nyoirin appears to have been a central defining feature of Nyoirin's identity in the Taimitsu tradition (台密 or Tendai esoteric Buddhism). Inari's link to Mt. Hiei is not surprising, as the first kami enshrined on this mountain were probably agricultural deities. <Freherman pp. 142-149>
     
  • Like Benzaiten and Amaterasu, Nyoirin has strong "underworld" aspects. Her links to hell deities are evident in her identification with Amaterasu, who in turn is identified with Enma-ten (Skt. = Yama, lord of the underworld); her links with Benzaiten, the elder sister of Enma-ten as well as a form of Hindu goddess Kālī (aka Durgā, the black one, death, consort of Śiva/Shiva); and her links with Jizō, an earth god identified with Enma-ten, one known for saving those suffering in hell. In the Keiran Shūyōshū, Benzaiten also features in an earth-quelling ritual (see T. 76, 2410, 724a2-10). On Amaterasu and the lord of the underworld, see Mark Teeuwen, The Creation of a Honji Suijaku Deity: Amaterasu as the Judge of the Dead, in Buddhas and Kami in Japan: Honji Suijaku as a Combinatory Paradigm, ed. Mark Teeuwen and Fabio Rambelli (London: Routledge Curzon, 2003), 115-44. On Nyoirin's underworld associations, see also Faure, Raging Gods. Page 172.

PHOTO AT RIGHT
ESOTERIC SEVEN LUCKY GODS
Ofuda 御札 (talisman) from Asamagatake (Mt. Asama) 朝熊ケ岳, located near Ise Jingū Shrine 伊勢神宮 in Mie Prefecture. Ise Jingū continues to play a pivotal role in modern-day Shintōism. It and its numerous sub-shrines are devoted to Amaterasu Ōmikami 天照大神 (female, sun goddess, chief deity of Ise's inner sanctuary or Naikū 内宮) and Toyōke Hime no Kami 豊宇気比売神 (female, kami of agriculture and foodstuffs, chief deity of Ise's outer sanctuary or Gekū 外宮). The adjacent drawing shows an unconventional grouping of the seven deities, with Nyoirin Kannon 如意輪観音 (at top center) holding a wish-granting jewel. Nyoirin is considered the honji 本地 (original Buddhist form) of the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu (Nyoirin's kami counterpart). The others include the eight-armed Benzaiten (atop dragon), Dakiniten (riding fox), Bishamonten (holding pagoda), Daikokuten (atop bales of rice), Ebisu (with fish/fishing rod), and Fukurokuju (riding a horned deer, holding a long staff, and wearing a nage zukin 投頭巾 or squared-off bonnet). <Photo Source> No date given. Perhaps the 17th century. Importantly, Nyoirin is also the honji of kami Inari Daimyōjin (see 30 Kami of 30 Days). Nyoirin = Amaterasu and Inari; Amaterasu = Benzaiten; Nyoirin = Benzaiten.

Esoteric Seven Lucky Gods -- An Unconventional Grouping

Learn More about Wish-Granting Jewels and Nyoirin / Amaterasu / Benzaiten / Dakini / Inari Linkages

 

 

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Seven Lucky Gods, Seven Deities of Good Fortune
Benzaiten, Bishamonten, Daikokuten, Ebisu, Fukurokuju, Hotei, Jurōjin

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Modern Wood Statue of Benzaiten
Benzaiten, Ivory, Date Unknown
Collection of Andres Bernhard - Italy
Ivory Set of Seven Lucky Gods

 

Benzaiten is the sole female among Japan's Seven Lucky Gods. Since she is a water goddes, she became the patroness of everything that "flows" -- e.g.,  music, dancing, acting, poetry, and other crafts. Such artistic talent often brings prosperity, hence her inclusion in the Japanese group of seven. Another factor propelling her popularity goes back to the Muromachi period (1392-1568), when the spelling of her name (Benzaiten 弁才天) was changed, with the character 才 (zai), meaning talent, replaced with its homonym 財 (zai), meaning wealth.

The Shichifukujin 七福神, or Seven Lucky Gods, are an eclectic group of deities from Japan, India, and China. Only one is native to Japan (Ebisu) and Japan's indigenous Shintō tradition. Three are from the Hindu-Buddhist pantheon of India (Daikokuten, Bishamonten, Benzaiten) and three from Chinese Taoist-Buddhist traditions (Hotei, Jurōjin, Fukurokuju). Each deity existed independently before Japan's "artificial" creation of the group. The origin of the group in unclear -- although most scholars point to the Muromachi era (1392-1568) and the 15th century. The group's seven members have varied over time and did not become standardized until the late 17th century. By the 19th century, most major cities had developed special pilgrimage circuits for the seven. These pilgrimages remain well trodden today, but many people now use cars, buses, and trains to move between the sites. Why the number seven? Details here.

Today, painted, sculpted, and printed images of the seven appear with great frequency in Japan. They are popular with people from all walks of life as an auspicious omen and motif of good fortune and longevity. Although Bishamonten, Daikokuten, and Benzaiten originated as martial deities, they often appear friendly and jolly in contemporary times. Visit our Seven Lucky Gods page for details. As a member of the seven, Benzaiten is depicted as a two-armed biwa-playing beauty -- an iconic form that first appeared in Japan in the 9th century. This iconic form of Benzaiten was probably derived from earlier depictions in India, where Sarasvatī was portrayed by at least the 6th century CE playing the zither. <source: Ludvik.
Reference: Catherine Ludvik, the preeminent scholar of Benzaiten lore and artwork in India, China, and Japan.

Uga-Benzaiten: The Goddess and the Snake, p. 96, Impressions, The Journal of the Japanese Art Society of America, Number 33, 2012.
>

On New Year's Eve, the seven enter port together on their Takarabune 宝船 (treasure ship) to bring happiness to everyone. On the night between Jan. 1 and 2, tradition says, children should put, under their pillow, a picture of the seven aboard their treasure ship, or a picture of the mythological Baku (eater of nightmares). If you have a lucky dream that night, you will be lucky for the whole year, but you must not tell anyone about your dream -- if you do, you forfeit its power. If you have a bad dream, you should pray to BAKU 獏 or set your picture adrift in the river or sea to forestall bad luck <Sources: Chiba Reiko, Kodo Matsunami, and JAANUS>

Seven Lucky Gods, 19th Century Japanese Painting

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Five of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune

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Seven Gods of Good Fortune, the standard set, early 19th century. Collaborative painting by Hokusai Katsushika 葛飾北斎 (1760-1849), Utagawa Kunisada 歌川 国貞 (1786-1865), Utagawa Toyokuni 豊国 (1769-1825), Torii Kiyonaga 鳥居清長 (1752-1815), and others. The image of Hotei holding huge white bag by Hokusai Katsushika. Benzaiten shown playing her customary biwa. Photo from this J-site.

Five of the Gods of Fortune 五福神図, by Kanō Tanyū 狩野探幽 (1602-1674). One of the oldest extant drawings of an abbreviated assemblage of the group. Ebisu (red fish), Daikoku (rice bale), Bishamon (spear), Benzaiten (biwa), Hotei (big bag). Photo from this J-site. I'm not sure, but I think this piece is at the University Art Museum, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts & Music.

 

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Modern Artwork of Benzaiten (Benten for short)
Cutification and Commercialization of Religious Icons

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Enoshima Benten Votive Tablet of Benzaiten Playing Biwa, with Dragon in the Background, Modern
Cutification of Religious Icons
Modern Votive Tablet of Benten
Enoshima Island Japan.

Modern example of Cutification.
Modern example of Cutification.
Giraffexcavator. Umeda, Osaka.
 Photo from Flickr

The "cutification" and commercialization of Benzaiten shifted into high gear in the second half of the 20th century, with temples, shrines, and retail stores capitalizing on her popularity as a member of the beloved Seven Lucky Gods by selling Benzaiten amulets, votive tablets, toys, confectionaries, and other products. Although traditional statues and artwork of the goddess remain available, she is just as likely to appear as a cute, lovable, and child-like character. The cutification of religious icons in Japan is widespread and part of a much larger social trend toward cuteness in billboard advertising, corporate branding, sports mascots, street fashion, greeting cards, public-safety messages, movies and entertainment, product design, and a host of other areas. In some ways, the Land of the Rising Sun (Japan) may more aptly be named the Land of Hello Kitty.

In a broader historical context, we must also note that the commercialization of religious icons in Japan began in the late 17th century under the rule of shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi 徳川綱吉 (1646-1709). Between 1688 and 1696, a major portion of the military government's budget went to temple and shrine repair. But financial hardship forced Tsunayoshi to reduce such spending and look to other sources for funding these projects. <source: Graham, p. 26-28> Toward this end, Tsunayoshi allowed temples to raise their own money. Temples responded by holding public displays of their treasures that required viewers to pay admission fees. Such events were known as Kaichō 開帳 (lit. opening the curtain) and Degaichō 出開帳 (lit. external openings of the curtain). In the latter case, temples in remote locations would display their treasures in more populous areas in concert with a host temple. Says scholar and art historian Patricia Graham, p. 84: "By the Edo period, though, such viewings had become moneymaking ventures for temples, especially in Edo (Tokyo), where huge crowds guaranteed generous profits. The viewings enabled temples to raise money for expensive reconstruction and general upkeep and were also sometimes held to offer divine benevolence and alleviate suffering, after particularly horrific disasters. To attract the desired crowds, temples concurrently set up carnival-like performances and exhibitions of exotic curiosities (misemono 見世物) within their grounds." <end quote> For more, see Patricia Graham's Faith and Power in Japanese Buddhist Art (1600-2005), 2007, pp. 25-29 and 84-87. Also see exhibition Taisho Era and the Origins of Japanese Cuteness (Japan Times, April 6, 2012)

Benzaiten atop Dragon. Modern Talisman.
Modern Talisman
Click to Enlarge
From Gabi Greve

Modern. Benzaiten used on label of alcoholic drink.
Modern Alcoholic Beverage
Click to Enlarge
From Gabi Greve

Modern. Benzaiten Confectionary (waffle).
Modern Confectionary
Click to Enlarge
From Gabi Greve

Modern. Benzaiten Talisman in shape of Daruma amulet.
Modern Talisman
Click to Enlarge
From Gabi Greve

Modern. Benzaiten Playing Guitar, Sitting Atop Lotus, Sun in Background
Modern Drawing
Click to Enlarge
Gokrak 極楽通信 & 2

Modern Benzaiten Drawing by Wardona Illustrations
Modern Drawing
Click to Enlarge
From Wardona Illustrations

Modern Benzaiten Drawing by Suigan Shodo Kyoshitsu Studio.
Modern Drawing
Click to Enlarge
From Suigan Shodō Kyōshitsu

Modern. Benzaiten Doll from Hakata Doll Online Shop.
Modern Doll
Click to Enlarge
From Hakata Doll Shop

Modern Statue of Nude Benzaiten
Modern Statue
Online J-store
Click to Enlarge

Modern Statue of Nude Benten
Modern Statue
Online J-store
Click to Enlarge

Modern Wood Statue of Benzaiten
Modern Statue
Online J-store
Click to Enlarge

Modern Statue of 8-Armed Uga Benzaiten
Modern Statue
Online J-store
Click to Enlarge

8-Armed Benzaiten - Available for Online Purchase at Buddhist-Artwork.com
8-Armed Benzaiten wood amulet. Modern.
Available online at Buddhist-Artwork.com

Modern metal statue of Benzaiten playing a lute
Benzaiten playing four-string lute. Modern metal statue.
Available online at Buddhist-Artwork.com

Modern Statue of Sanmen Daikokuten
Modern Statue
Sanmen Daikokuten
Online J-store
Click to Enlarge

Modern Statue of Benzaiten and Dragon
Modern Statue w/ Dragon
Inami Wood Carving Co.
井波彫刻協同組合
Click to Enlarge

Modern Japanese Statue of Dakiniten
Dakini atop Fox
Modern Statue
Online J-store
Click to Enlarge

Modern Reproductions of Dakini atop white fox
Dakini and Foxes
Modern Reproduction
Online J-store
Click to Enlarge

 

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HINDU, BUDDHIST, & SHINTŌ ASSOCIATIONS
Table 1. Benzaiten's Many Convoluted Linkages
This chart provides a simplified "one glance" guide to the complex web of associations between Benzaiten and other deities in Japan's Deva-Buddha-Kami matrix. It is by no means comprehensive, yet helps one visualize the extreme degree of syncretism in Benzaiten faith and art. Says Iyanaga Nobumi: "From the Buddhist cosmological/metaphysical point of view, all Japanese kami are exactly on the same level of existence as the Hindu deities (though, perhaps, they were felt to be a little inferior, since Japan was considered as a small country very far from the center of the world, which people situated in India, or more precisely at the Diamond Seat where the Buddha had attained enlightenment. The only way people had to think about Japanese deities was according to the model of Hindu deities as they appear in Buddhist cosmology and mythology......I think that they were conscious of the fact that this kind of [Hindu-related] myth was not really in conformity with Buddhist doctrine in the strict sense. But this did not stop them -- to the contrary, I would think that they were intentionally creating a new type of theology........the new theology that they were trying to create was a mythical theology of kami-devas, built on the model of Hindu mythology as they could unveil it from within the Buddhist mythical corpus. In this sense, I think that it is possible to argue that medieval Buddhist-Shinto was an attempt to create a kind of 'Japanese Hinduism' inside Buddhism, itself self-revolutionizing in an incessant movement." <end Iyanaga quote, page 175, Honji Suijaku and the "Logic" of Combinatory Deities: Two Case Studies

Benzaiten Symbolism

Key attributes of     chart-arrow
Benzaiten shared with other deities who are associated with her in artwork, rituals, and faith systems. Listed in no particular order.

chart-female

chart-fertility1

chart-rice2

chart-wealth2

chart-snake-dragon

chart-fox3

chart-warrior

chart-jewel1

 Yes = Shared Iconography
Main configurations
in Japanese artwork
when deities appear
alongside Benzaiten
(discussed in this report)

Buddhist Deities from Hindu Pantheon

1

Daikokuten (Mahākāla)

 

 

Yes

Yes

Yes

 

Yes

 

Sanmen Daikoku, Uga Benzaiten, Tenkawa Mandala, 7 Lucky Gods

2

Bishamonten (Vaiśravaṇa)

 

Yes

 

Yes

 

 

Yes

 

Sanmen Daikoku, Uga Benzaiten, Tenkawa Mandala, 7 Lucky Gods

3

Dakiniten (ḍākinī)

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Sanmen Dakini, Gomen Yaksha, Tenkawa Mandala, White Fox

4

Shōten (Gaṇeśa)

Yes

Yes

 

Yes

 

 

 

 

Sanmen Dakini, Gomen Yaksha, Dakini Mandala

5

15 (or 16) Disciples

Yes

 

Yes

Yes

 

 

 

 

Uga Benzaiten & 15 Attendants, Tenkawa Mandala, Dakini Mandala

6

Suiten (Varuṇa)

Yes

 

Yes

Yes

Yes

 

 

 

Tenkawa Mandala (involves Suiten, a water deva)

7

Kichijōten (Lakṣmī)

Yes

Yes

 

Yes

 

 

 

Yes

Tenkawa Mandala, Dakini Mandala, 7 Lucky Gods

8

Kariteimo (Hārītī)

Yes

Yes

 

Yes

 

 

 

 

Tenkawa Mandala, Dakini Mandala

9

Nyoirin Kannon

Yes

 

 

Yes

 

 

 

Yes

Nyoirin Kannon = Inari, Benzaiten, Amaterasu, Seiryō Gongen

Japanese Kami

10

Inari

Yes

 

Yes

Yes

 

Yes

 

 

Tenkawa Mandala, Dakini Mandala, White Fox

11

Ugajin

 

 

Yes

Yes

Yes

 

 

 

Uga Benzaiten, Dai Benzaiten, Happi Benzaiten, Tenkawa Mandala

12

Amaterasu

Yes

 

 

Yes

 

 

Yes

Yes

Amaterasu = Nyoirin Kannon, Benzaiten, Wish-Granting Jewel

13

Suijin

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes